PITTSBURGH — It’s small, but this exclusive club is always looking to expand. The annual challenge is finding worthy candidates.
Northeastern gets its chance on Thursday. The Huskies are hoping to join schools such as Mercer, Harvard, Bucknell, and Weber State and become the most recent No. 14 seed to upset a No. 3 in the NCAA Tournament.
First accomplished in 1986 — one year after the field was expanded from 48 to 64 — the number of times a 14 has knocked off a 3 sits at 18. It’s happened the past two years: Mercer over Duke last year, Harvard over New Mexico in 2013. On two occasions (1986, 1995), two 14 seeds advanced, and on two other occasions (1986, 1997), a 14 seed won twice to reach the Sweet 16.
One of the many reasons this three-week tournament captures the hearts of so many people is its ability to produce unforgettable upsets. Almost always, it’s an obscure team from a lower-tier conference shocking a recognizable program from a power league: Weber State over North Carolina in 1999, Lehigh over Duke in 2012, Ohio over Georgetown in 2010.
In the tournament’s first Round of 64 game on Thursday here at the Consol Energy Center — tip is 12:15 p.m. — Northeastern (23-11) will put its mid-major credentials up against Notre Dame (29-5), champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which already has knocked off Duke and North Carolina – twice.
But the Irish also have a history with a 14/3 game, and it should give Northeastern fans at least a parcel of hope: Arkansas-Little Rock knocked out third-seeded Notre Dame in a 1986 first-round game. It’s the only time, until now, that Notre Dame has been a No. 3 seed since the tournament grew to 64.
The upsets we love to predict in our brackets aren’t limited to the 14/3 matchups. While a No. 16 seed has yet to beat a No. 1 in men’s play (they’re 0 for 120), a 15 has won seven times over a 2, and a 13 has advanced over a 4 on 25 occasions, or almost at a once-a-year pace.
How do these upsets happen, and if there are any common denominators, does this Northeastern team have what it takes to pull off its own upset?
“I think it’s the ability to be able to shoot the ball, and I think we have that. If we can knock down some shots, then I think we can challenge them,” said Northeastern senior forward Scott Eatherton, the Huskies’ leading scorer at 14.6 points per game. “The big thing is confidence. We’ve won four in a row, so we’re confident right now. We just have to look at ourselves like it’s just another game, and we can’t worry about the seeding or stuff like that.”
Rule 1: Shoot the ball well.
In the seven most recent instances when either a 14 or 15 seed beat a 3 or 2, the lower seed has outshot the favorite, with five of those teams shooting at least 52 percent from the field. To win NCAA games, longshots need to make shots.
Northeastern might not be able to match Notre Dame’s offensive efficiency, but the Huskies are prolific with the ball. They shoot 48.6 percent from the field, good for 11th best in the country; Notre Dame ranks second, at 51 percent.
Rule 2: Make 3-pointers.
Upsets rarely occur if a lower seed isn’t knocking down shots from behind the arc. Over the last 10 times a 14 or 15 seed has won a game in the NCAA Tournament, they’ve averaged 7.5 made 3-pointers; 14th-seeded Northwestern State used a trey at the buzzer to beat No. 3 Iowa, 64-63, in 2006.
The Huskies average 5.9 made 3-pointers per game (they’re 200 for 515 on the season), but went 26 for 47 in their three-game run to the Colonial Athletic Association tournament title, including a season-high 12 treys in the championship game.
“They make 3-point shots. They’re coming off a tournament where they made 55 percent of their 3-point shots,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “Now, our 3-point defense in the ACC tournament, we held teams to 24 percent. So I want to take a page out of that book. But when you’re making jump shots — and this is a team that relies on it — that’s when they get going, and they just won a championship lighting it up.”
Rule 3: Limit turnovers.
Mercer turned the ball over just eight times in their 78-71 win over third-seeded Duke last year. Lehigh had the same amount when they beat the second-seeded Blue Devils in 2012, and No. 14 seed Bucknell had nine in a 64-63 win over Kansas in 2005.
Here’s where it gets tough for Northeastern. The Huskies turn it over 13.7 times per game, and have had more turnovers than their opponent in 27 of 34 games. To beat Notre Dame, that probably can’t happen.
“You can not turn the ball over against them. They’re elite — maybe the best team — in transition, because they play three, four, even five guards at times, and their frontcourt players can all put the ball down. If they get a steal anywhere in the open court, they can all dribble it the length of the court and finish or make a play, or worse yet, kick it out for 3s in transition,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. “That’s going to be a major emphasis for us. We have to be near a season-low in turnovers in order to compete, just because it takes points off the board for us, and we’re a pretty good offensively efficient team as well. They’ll turn five turnovers into 10 to 15 points. We can’t give them that cushion.”
Rule 4: Close out close games.
Not surprisingly, when a 14 or 15 seed springs an upset, it’s usually a close game. Florida Gulf Coast was an exception in 2013; the Eagles won by 10 points over No. 2 Georgetown, then by 10 over San Diego State.
According to the NCAA, since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, teams seeded 13th or lower have won 50 games in the Round of 64; of those 50 wins, 37 were decided by 6 points or less, or in overtime.
Winning close games can come down to two key attributes: Making free throws, and having experience on the floor. The Huskies make 72.5 percent of their free throws.
They also rely on a core group of contributors that have logged a lot of college minutes; Reggie Spencer has played in 124 college games, and Eatherton has played in 123, Quincy Ford 100, David Walker 99, and Zach Stahl 95.
“I’d have to lean on our experience,” Coen said, when asked about how the Huskies would beat Notre Dame if the game is tight late. “We’ve had multiple guys that have played over 100 basketball games and have been in those moments along the way. Obviously not at this stage, but if they can stay focused in what they’re doing, they’ve been in those situations, they’ve been in close games, they’ve won close games, they’ve hit game-winners, they’ve made clutch free throws, they’ve got that big rebound or that big stop.”