LAWRENCE — There’s an old cliché that often pops up in David-and-Goliath scenarios such as the one ahead of Kansas basketball.
“Stranger things have happened.”
Only for KU, the towering giant in this telling, that simply isn’t the case. History isn’t simply on the top-seeded Jayhawks’ side — it’s shirtless, painted crimson and blue and already delivering a full-throated “Rock Chalk” chant. No. 1 seeds are undefeated in matchups with 16th-seeded foes in the NCAA Tournament, and if KU stumbles in its opener against Penn, it would buck 33 years of precedent established over 132 previous encounters.
It would, at least in the wide world of sports, quite likely be the strangest thing that’s ever happened.
“It would be absolutely, incredibly special,” said Matt Leon, play-by-play voice for Penn, “and it would be really, really cool to be courtside for it.”
Leon and Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Marc Narducci both spoke to The Capital-Journal about Penn (24-8), which qualified for its first NCAA Tournament since 2007 with a 68-65 victory over Harvard on Sunday afternoon in the finals of the Ivy League Tournament. The Quakers had little time to celebrate their accomplishment, learning soon thereafter of a 1 p.m. Thursday clash with the Jayhawks (27-7) at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita.
It would be inaccurate, though, to portray this as a ho-hum 1-versus-16 tilt, a reality clear to anyone who has glimpsed at social media the past few days.
The Quakers are only 14-point underdogs against the Jayhawks, a smaller margin than that held by every other one-seed and all but one two-seed — Cincinnati is also a 14-point favorite against Georgia State. Michigan State, a three-seed also in the Midwest Region, is a 14½-point favorite against No. 14-seeded Bucknell.
KU's first-round matchup becomes more intriguing when one dives into advanced analytics.
Penn is the No. 127-rated team on KenPom.com, a higher ranking than 14th-seeded Wright State (135) and 15s Iona (134), Cal State Fullerton (153) and Lipscomb (165). KenPom gives the Quakers an 11-percent chance of pulling off the upset. And according to FiveThirtyEight.com's Elo metric, a metric primarily based on whom a team has beaten and by how much, Penn is 76th nationally with a 1700 rating, the highest mark ever carried into the NCAA Tournament by a 16-seed.
The typical Division I team has an Elo rating of about 1500. KU enters the tournament with a mark of 1985.
“Penn-Kansas might be the perfect storm we obsessive 16-over-1 hopefuls have been waiting for,” wrote FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine, "a combination of the best No. 16 seed in history and one of the weaker No. 1 seeds.”
The talking heads are taking notice, too.
“I would never pick a 16 to beat a 1,” CBS Sports analyst Seth Davis tweeted, “but if ever there were a 16-seed that could pull off that miracle, it's Penn.”
In telling KU fans to “be careful,” Fox Sports analyst Jason McIntyre cited Penn’s lockdown 3-point defense — limiting opponents to 28.9-percent shooting from beyond the arc, the Quakers are ranked second nationally in that category.
"Jayhawks don't have much inside," McIntyre tweeted. “Mildly nervous about Kansas.”
Even veteran news anchor Dan Rather got in on the bold predictions.
"You heard it here first," Rather tweeted Tuesday. "Dan Rather's NCAA blue-plate specials. Penn upsets Kansas. Marshall upsets Wichita State."
As for Penn’s own confidence level, Narducci said the Quakers think they have “a puncher’s chance.”
“They thought they should’ve been seeded a tad higher,” Narducci said. “In fact, every time they announced a No. 15 seed on the selection show, they all started cheering and all of that, so they thought (they were underseeded) a little bit. But you know, they’re just happy.”
After calling Penn’s 78-70 wire-to-wire victory at Dayton and its 90-62 defeat at Villanova, Leon doesn’t think the stage will shrink coach Steve Donahue’s group.
“I don’t think (the moment) will be too big for them, that’s for sure,” Leon said. “I think they’ll be ready to go, and they will go into this game thinking they have a chance to win if they play their game.”
So what, exactly, is Penn’s game? Narducci and Leon both provided some insight.
The Quakers’ calling card is the aforementioned prowess from beyond the arc, a strength that will be tested against the Jayhawks’ 40.3-percent shooting percentage from 3.
“They play defense night-in and night-out,” Leon said. “They’ve had some nights where they haven’t shot it well, but they just about always defend.”
Penn itself shoots 34.7 percent from distance, led by 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Ryan Betley (14.5 points per game, 38.9 percent from 3-point range) and 6-foot-4 senior guard Caleb Wood (10.1 points while shooting 38.2 percent from 3). Averaging a team-high 7.1 rebounds, 6-8 sophomore AJ Brodeur (13.1 points per game) gets it done on the boards for the Quakers.
But those are just three of Donahue’s weapons.
Penn has made a name for itself this season through its depth, deploying nine players averaging at least 10 minutes. One could go up and down the roster, Leon said, and point to a player who has contributed in a key moment — sophomore guard Dev Goodman sat five of six games before scoring 23 points off the bench in a 74-62 victory at Columbia; senior forward Sam Jones, averaging 2 points and 4.4 minutes, hit five 3s off the bench in the victory over Dayton; Sam Jones, a senior, scored 19 first-half points in Penn’s berth-clinching victory over Harvard.
“One of the really fascinating things about this team is Steve Donahue’s ability to go get a guy off the bench — sometimes it’s a kid that hasn’t played in a long time — and to a man, they have delivered,” Leon said. “... They may not have been getting consistent minutes, it may have come out of nowhere, but the really neat thing about this group is one-to-15, they’re all ready to go.”
On 3s, Donahue told Narducci the Quakers are going to have to hit “at least 10 of ’em” to have a shot against the Jayhawks.
“It’s the only way if they’re going to have any chance, because you just can’t go toe-to-toe with Kansas,” Narducci said. “They have too many high school All-Americans. These are kids that aren’t on scholarship.”
Ahead of what will be his own debut calling an NCAA Tournament contest, Leon’s attitude is likely in line with that of Penn’s as it heads to Wichita — happy to be there, but not simply content with a one-and-done scenario.
“I think it’s neat,” Leon said. “It’s great for everybody that’s been involved with this program. A lot of people have given a lot to this program as far as time and excitement and that sort of stuff, so to get the chance to do this is really, really cool.”
GRAHAM A NAISMITH AWARD FINALIST
KU senior guard Devonte’ Graham was one of four nationally to earn a nod as a finalist for the Naismith Trophy, given annually to the nation’s top player.
Averaging 17.3 points and 7.5 assists in 37.6 minutes per game, Graham joins Deandre Ayton (Arizona), Marvin Bagley (Duke) and Jalen Brunson (Villanova) as finalists for the award, which was won last season by KU’s Frank Mason.
SELF TO LEAD USA BASKETBALL U18 TEAM
KU coach Bill Self will be the head coach of USA Basketball’s under-18 national team for the first time this summer, guiding the Americans in the 2018 FIBA Americas U18 Championship, June 11-17 in St. Catherines, Canada.
On Self’s staff will be assistant coaches Danny Manning, a former KU standout and assistant coach now leading Wake Forest, and Anthony Grant of Dayton.
“It's something I've wanted to do for a while,” Self said in a news release, “and I'm really looking forward to it.”