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Actual Dramatic Comebacks Are Rare In NCAA Tournament


Time now for sports. Did you see it? The reason we watch the NCAA tournament - sorry, Villanova fans, but it's true. We watch for the drama, the upsets, and last night it happened when the No. 8 seeded N.C. State beat the No. 1 seed Villanova in a clincher-of-a-game. But lest you think upsets happen all the time, we bring you Mike Pesca of to tell you otherwise. Hey, Mike.


MARTIN: So did your bracket bust last night?

PESCA: No. It's on life support. It's in an iron lung. And that iron lung's name is Fred VanVleet of the Wichita State Shockers. So it's not a great situation, but I could eke out something here.

MARTIN: All right. So you know, first off, this really is the first big surprise win of the tournament, right?

PESCA: Well, yes. A couple of No. 3 seeds went down in the first couple of games of the tournament. But yeah, here's a No. 1 seed, Villanova, losing to N.C. State and N.C. State was double-digit underdog. I should say, though, that if you look at the history of this tournament, last year a No. 1 seed went down in this round, the year before that. It's happened 5 of the past 6 years. So it's one of those situations where in the aggregate, maybe it's not that shocking. But in each specific case, you don't expect - you do expect a 1 seed to survive at least a couple rounds.

MARTIN: OK. So let's get specific because that's what you do well.

PESCA: Let's get specific.

MARTIN: (Laugher) How many upsets have there been? Walk us through some examples.

PESCA: I would say - yeah. So the two No. 3 seeds that I mentioned, Iowa State and Baylor, going down. Now both the 14 seeds, Georgia State and UAB - University of Alabama, Birmingham - they lost yesterday. So that means that today, all the teams playing are pretty much the teams that should be there. There's a couple of No. 11 seeds have snuck in. But there haven't been that many upsets. Nate Silver of 538 looked at it, and said exactly what I just said. There haven't been that many upsets. But he proved it with stats.

MARTIN: (Laughter) What a brilliant man.

PESCA: Yeah. We love this guy. He'll also tell you he'll be president. But the point is that I think we do somehow think that there are going to be more upsets in terms of seeds. But I would actually look at this and say - you know what? - there are upsets. There might not be the seeded team, the lower seeded team, beating them. But let's just take a case of Butler against Texas, right? Butler was the 6 seed, Texas was the 11. And people who know basketball will say, oh, yeah, that was an evenly matched game. That's not my point. Butler won. And if you look at the dollars spent on basketball by the Butler's program as opposed to Texas, it's like $4 million versus $8 million...

MARTIN: Texas spending more.

PESCA: ...That is an upset. Texas is the richest athletic department in the country. So there are at upsets all the time, but they sort of get priced into how these seeds are made. And that was one of Nate's points - that the seeding is so much better. We don't get mistakes where they say that the 7 who plays the 10, and they get which team should be better -we don't get as many mistakes as we did. I had to add to that - what I just said - that we should start looking at the size of athletic departments to determine what's an upset.

And the third thing I would say is there a lot of these teams that have been Cinderella's in the past - right? - Gonzaga, Wichita State, Butler, Xavier. And some of the big conferences have absorbed these Cinderella-esque teams, like Butler now plays in the Big East. So we might not think of Butler as a team out of a small conference anymore because they're not. But they're very similar to the Butler teams that were Cinderella's in years past.

MARTIN: See, but I think we don't love them as much. We love Butler when they're the small team, but, you know, I digress.

PESCA: That's right. Yeah. We love the team of multidirectional titles in their name - Southwest, Northeast, Louisiana.

MARTIN: OK. You got curveball for us quickly?

PESCA: I do. The other day on the show I've been talking about the UConn women's team because not only are they good, they just win by so much. And not only am I the host of The Gist which is a news and politics show, I have a sports show on Slate called Hang Up and Listen.

MARTIN: Is this an advertisement? Come on, get to it.

PESCA: One day I was going over their margin of victory, and I'm, like, this is unbelievable. And 538, that site I just mentioned, wrote an article based on my comments about how much UConn kills it's competitions proving, again, with statistics that it's unbelievable. And yesterday they beat St. Francis 89 to 33. We have not seen dominance like this ever.

MARTIN: Except from you - Mike Pesca, host of The Gist podcast from Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: I could prove that with stats. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.