Don’t Cry for NKU, Their Draw is Perfect
Not long after My Beloved Northern Kentucky University (it’s capitalized, because I am trying to get “My Beloved” into the official name, like THE Ohio State University) was matched against the Kentucky Wildcats on Selection Sunday (a day that still scars me, by the way), the messages started coming in to my phone. They came in two strains. The first: “How do you feel about what they did to NKU?” The second: “I am so sorry about NKU.” Regardless of the text, they had the same sense of reverence – the kind of reverence you would show if the school had closed. And while it’s sweet that my friends were worried about how I would take the matchup, most were fundamentally wrong about the nature of the pairing.
It was the best possible outcome for the Norse.
No, seriously, I mean that.
First, if NKU wins, it will be the coolest thing to happen in the history of the University. It would also be cool if they beat Duke, Arizona or Louisville, of course, but beating Kentucky would be bigger than any of them.
Next, let’s be honest about something. In the history of the 64+ team field, there have been EIGHT games where a 15 seed (NKU) has beaten a 2 seed (UK). That’s eight wins in 132(!) games. It’s a winning percentage of .061. And those eight wins took on three distinct shapes:
1) Team with quirky style beats team that can’t quite figure them out — Lehigh over Duke and Richmond over Syracuse.
2) REALLY athletic team beats team that can’t match them athletically — this especially applies to Florida Gulf Coast over Georgetown.
3) Team with future NBA Hall of Famer who has an off night somehow beats higher seed anyway — Santa Clara over Arizona. (Nash went 1 for 7 in that game and only had 4 assists. How the hell did they win?)
The Norse don’t seem to fit any of those categories. Have stranger things happened? Sure. Do they happen often? They do not. So how can NKU get the most mileage out of a game that they have a 6% chance of winning historically?
The best argument I see against the game benefiting NKU is “but if they were playing anybody besides Kentucky, the whole state would cheer for them.” While that’s probably true, it forgets a couple of important things. One is that if they weren’t paired against Kentucky (or Louisville, I guess) they wouldn’t be playing in Indianapolis where their fans can easily go to the Norse’s first ever NCAA Division 1 Tournament game. They’d be in Greenville, S.C., (manageable) or Salt Lake City (less so). And all those fans they’d have (on TV)? If the game gets outside 10 points, those fans are tuning out. There are three other games on in that same time slot. Two of those games — Miami (Fla.) vs. Michigan St. and Marquette vs. South Carolina could be close.
Playing Kentucky in the first round (I will never call it the second round) guarantees the most possible eyes will be watching the Norse for the longest possible time. Kentucky fans won’t tune out if Kentucky gets up big and they DEFINITELY won’t tune out if it’s close. So tens of thousands of Kentucky fans will watch NKU for two plus hours. They probably didn’t even do that when UK played the Norse in 2013. Many of them may not even know that UK played NKU in 2013. Even playing Louisville wouldn’t bring the kind of audience that playing Kentucky will.
The second best argument for worrying about NKU facing UK is “what if the Norse win? All those UK fans will HATE them!” First, remember, eight — eight — of 132 15 seeds have beaten 2 seeds. Second, this is where the experience gained in my eight years of hosting Community Trust Bank Sunday Morning Sports Talk (9-Noon Sundays on NewsRadio 630 WLAP in Lexington) comes in handy. Kentucky has lost 687 games in the program’s history. Since they’ve lost to some of those teams more than once, let’s say they have lost to 500 different teams (primarily because it makes the math easier). Of those 500 teams, Kentucky fans have stayed mad at exactly two — Tennessee and, of course, Duke ( Full disclosure: I hate three. I still hate Arizona, but that’s just because of Miles Simon’s stupid smiling face). That’s 2 out of 500 or .4%. That means that unless NKU throws a 3/4 court pass to a guy who should have been ejected who then hits a turnaround jumper to beat UK in overtime, UK fans are FAR more likely to be angry at Kentucky than they are at NKU. In fact, NKU is statistically 15 times more likely to beat Kentucky than Kentucky fans are likely to be mad at them for it (give or take, I was a Radio/TV/Film major).
So, to sum up, there is LITERALLY no downside to NKU playing Kentucky in their first NCAA Tournament trip, barring the unlikely complete re-creation of the shot by he who shall not be named. And there are tens of thousands of eyes of upside. Whatever the final score of the game, Friday will be a huge win for My Beloved Northern Kentucky University®.