There are few guarantees in the NCAA Tournament. The tournament is as unpredictable as it is exciting. However, I have one guarantee for this year’s tournament: Belmont will beat Arizona in the first round. It’s not a hunch, it’s not a prediction, nor is it a ploy to mess with other people’s brackets, it’s something I know will happen.
I know Belmont will beat Arizona because of history, which if you haven’t heard, tends to repeat itself. Belmont fits into a trend or pattern that has sprung up in the NCAA Tournament over the past decade, and there’s reason to believe it will continue to hold true. Meanwhile, Arizona merely has the misfortune of being matched up against the wrong team.
Cynics will call this a coincidence, while superstitious people will just say that “the third time’s the charm”, but I call it the “Rule of Three”. It works like this: any team that wins its conference tournament and earns an automatic bid to The Big Dance for two straight years but fails to win a game in the NCAA tournament, will win at least their first round game in the NCAA Tournament if they’re able to win their conference tournament and get to the NCAA’s for a third straight year. Belmont was an automatic qualifier in both 2011 and 2012, and while they put up valiant efforts in those years against Wisconsin and Georgetown respectively, the Bruins were knocked out in the first round both times. This year, Belmont won their conference tournament for the third straight season, (albeit in a difference conference, moving from the Atlantic Sun to the Ohio Valley) and now they are a lock to win at least their first round game of the NCAA Tournament.
The “Rule of Three” has been seen on five separate occasions in the last nine seasons. The first example was Manhattan in 2004, a 12 seed led by Luis Flores that beat 5 seed Florida in the first round in its third straight year in the tournament. Vermont was the next example in 2005, as they used a miraculous 30-foot jump shot to secure an upset win over Syracuse. In 2007, Winthrop became the next example of the “Rule of Three” by beating Notre Dame. In 2008, Davidson became the first team affected by the rule to win more than its first round game. Led by Stephen Curry, Davidson beat Gonzaga, Georgetown, and Wisconsin to advance all the way to the Elite Eight as a 10 seed. Cornell also won multiple games, advancing to the Sweet 16 as a 12 seed in 2010. In all of these cases, the team was in their third consecutive year in the NCAA Tournament without a win in their first two tries, and always following a conference tournament title.
From those five examples it’s easy to see that the “Rule of Three” usually affects small conference and mid major teams, which is the case because most major conference teams that win their conference tournaments three years in a row also win NCAA Tournament games in the first two years. This isn’t to say that small conference and mid major teams can’t win NCAA Tournament games in those first two years, but in the event they fail to do so, they are virtually guaranteed a win if they’re able to make it back for a third consecutive year, which is no easy feat.
In the past decade, there has been no team to win their conference tournament three years in a row and not win at least one NCAA Tournament game during that three-year period. This year, there are actually two teams that have won their conference tournament for a third consecutive year that are yet to record an NCAA tournament win during that span. Unfortunately, LIU-Brooklyn’s guaranteed win will be wasted in tonight’s play-in game against James Madison, a game that is technically a part of the NCAA tournament but that will go largely unnoticed. However, Belmont’s game against Arizona will be noticed, especially when the 11th seeded Bruins upset the 6th seeded Wildcats, which I assure you will happen; and when it does it will serve as further proof that the “Rule of Three” is real.