Since 1985, a No. 12-seed has upset a No. 5-seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament 46 times. Virginia coach Tony Bennett said it should have been at least one more.
In 1991, Bennett’s Wisconsin-Green Bay team was a 12 seed playing No. 5 Michigan State in a first-round game in Tucson, Ariz., and lost on a buzzer-beater 60-58.
“This guy, he was an OK player, named Steve Smith,” Bennett recalled of Smith’s game-winning shot. “I don’t know. He had his patented hesitation move at the top of the key, and my best friend Ben Johnson is draped all over him, and at the buzzer, swish.”
Bennett remembers that game vividly — as most coaches and players can recall tough losses quicker than any win.
“I had a bad second half. I started out, I had to hit a bunch of 3s the second half. It was bad,” said Bennett, who scored 9 points in that game. “I had a lot of assists (10), but my father (then-Wisconsin-Green Bay coach Dick Bennett) let me know about that many times: ‘You know, son, if you’d played a little bit in the second half, we would have advanced, but you let me down.’ ”
Of course, he was joking. We think.
But the fact remains, that Green Bay team could have — and, Bennett says, probably should have — won.
Twenty-six years later, Bennett’s Virginia team is a No. 5 seed, facing 12th-seeded UNC Wilmington in the first round today at the Amway Center in downtown Orlando.
And the chance for an upset, especially in the 5-12 game, is just as real now as it was then — and every March before and after.
“Listen, the way college basketball is now, and we always talk about the parity. Every year it shrinks. You’ve got to be ready,” Bennett said. “It’s reality when you’re playing this tournament. It really is. I don’t know if there’s anything to that number. You’re seeing two 15s, four 13s, they’re all there. Maybe the 5-12 one is there percentage-wise more, but I just think it’s such an even deal.”
And the feisty Seahawks are a popular pick this year to knock off the struggling Cavaliers, who are limping into their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament.
Could it happen? Sure.
Will it happen? That’s why they play the game.
But in this game, specifically, anything can happen. And it just might.
It’s a contrast of styles as U.Va. and UNCW tip off. Virginia wants to play slow and deliberately. UNCW wants to press and push.
“Obviously, they’re going to come out firing,” U.Va. senior guard London Perrantes said. “That’s the way they play — pressing, doing all types of things. So we’ve just got to be ready for it.”
And even if they are ready — Virginia players said they’ve been working specifically on stopping UNCW’s pick-and-roll offense all week — the Cavs need to prove it.
Virginia isn’t the Virginia of the past three NCAA tournaments. For the first time in four years, the Cavs are not a No. 1 or 2 seed.
Inconsistency is the theme of this year’s team. Defensively, yes, the Cavs will be there. They rank No. 1 in scoring defense. The Pack Line is tried and true. And no one does it better than Tony Bennett’s crew.
However, defense can’t win every game. Points are needed. Offense is needed.
Virginia’s offense has been inconsistent, at best. And depending on who’s hot and who’s not, you never know what you’re going to get.
But they know what they’re going to get from this UNCW squad, which enters today’s first-round matchup with something to prove.
The Seahawks aren’t just happy to be a mid-major, automatic qualifier by winning the CAA championship. They’re on a mission.
Last year, they stretched Duke for a full 40 minutes in their first-round game as a No. 13-seed. This year, they’re hoping to break Virginia as a 12. And it’s not because they’re the trendy upset pick.
It’s because they’re good. And confident. And focused.
“We feel we can play against any given team on any night,” said UNCW’s leading scorer, 6-foot-6 guard C.J. Bryce. “We just have to play our game and our style of play.”
And the Seahawks have that same mentality off the court.
“They don’t get caught up in — though I know they read social media and they’re on Snapchat and all that Twitter stuff, I don’t think it affects those guys at all,” coach Kevin Keatts said. “We try to stay in the moment, and that’s been great for us because, when you play in a league like the CAA, you’ve got so many good opponents, and you’ve got to really just focus on the team that you’re playing.”
UNCW knows its opponent. And the Seahawks are focused.
And Bennett knows as well as anyone what can happen in that scenario.