For years, I remember hearing that it was somewhat inevitable that at some point a #16 seed would beat a #1 seed, that it was bound to happen. I mean, the talent difference between 16 & 1 is not that much larger than 15 & 2, and we saw a run of them since 2012, as it's happened four times since then, including twice in 2012.
Certainly, it was odd that it never had happened. And then it did; and not only did a #16 seed beat a #1 seed, they crushed them. They hung with them in the first half, ending tied 21-21, took an early lead in the second and never looked back. Virginia never made anything approaching a run all game. It was incredible. One of the last sports final frontiers has been reached, and they tore down that wall like nothing else.
I watched the game half-drunk at a New York bar filled with Syracuse fans cheering on their team during their game, but people slowly started directing their eyes to the one screen tucked in the corner end of the bar that was showing the Virginia game. At first it was 'Hey, that's cute, UMBC is tied at halftime.' Then it became 'Oh my God, they're up by 10+ deep into the second half.' At some point, it became 'You know what, this is going to happen!' and by then that one screen started to drown out the rest.
I've thought a lot about it. On the one hand, it is cool that a 16 finally won a game. Sure, it would have been more fun had it happen to a more blue-blood #1 than Virginia (there was a period on Thursday where it seemed like an over-seeded Penn might be able to do it to Kansas), but what was helpful was that this was no fluke, both in UMBC's ridiculous performance and the fact that UMBC very much deserved a #16 seed, and Virginia very much deserved the #1 overall seed.
Virginia was a great team all season long, losing just two games, going through the gauntlet of the ACC dropping just one, a 1-point loss to Virginia Tech in OT. The ACC sent four teams to the Sweet 16 (Duke, Syracuse, Clemson and Florida State). Virginia went a ridiculous 7-0 against those teams. Alas, none of it matters now.
Honestly, in my time watching sports, almost nothings seems so incredible unlikely as this. The only arena I can begin to compare this to is tennis, a similarly large bracketed tournament, with also similar displays of inequality even among its top 128. Maybe Sirgey Stakhovsky beating a gimpy Federer in Wimbledon 2013 in the 2nd round, or Rafael Nadal losing to Lukas Rosol in the same 2nd round in 2012? Maybe Novak Djokovic, when he was still the clear #1, losing to Denis Istomin in the 2nd round. That's probably the closest, but that is it.
This was more unlikely than Super Bowl XLII, or Super Bowl XXXVI, or any other football game. This is more unlikely than the 73-9 Warriors not winning the NBA Finals. Honestly, you could make the case that was more unlikely than the Miracle on Ice. People forget the USSR struggled at times in that tournament, and while they did humiliate the USA a few weeks before the start of the Winter Olympics, my guess is if Virginia played UMBC two weeks back they probably would have humiliated them too.
I think the last time I was this shocked about a result in a team sport was when Michigan lost to Appalachian State in the 2007 College Football opener. That may have been more stunning in theory, but that ended up being not so good a Michigan team, and that Appalachian State team had a few future pros on it. Still, I do have to think if this still was even more shocking.
It is so ingrained in your mind as a bracket-filler that #16s never come close to beating #1 seeds. I can even remember the few times it seemed remotely possible in recent years, with one of the most famous examples being in 2006, when UCONN struggled to put away Albany. Hell, as mentioned, Penn's brief 10-point lead in the first half was enough to make major headlines. The fact a team actually pulled it off, and dominated while doing so, is almost unconsciable.