DAYTON, Ohio –– There are underdogs. There are ginormous underdogs. And then there are No. 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
History says they are on a suicide mission. Shouldn’t we recognize this year’s fearless foursome, then, before they leap into the shark tank?
Here’s to the team whose leading scorer graduated with a double major, still had a season of eligibility, and didn’t transfer to a bigger fish, like so many do. UMBC and stay-the-course Jairus Lyles. Next up: Virginia.
Here’s to the team with the coach who already understands how to wreck a bracket. Penn and Steve Donahue, who in an earlier Ivy League life took Cornell to the Sweet 16. Next up: Kansas. In Wichita.
And here’s to the ultimate Cinderella; a team with a 16-19 record and unflappable guard. All 5-7 of him. Texas Southern and Damontrae Jefferson. Next up: Xavier.
It gets even more depressing. Of those 132 losses, 89 were by at least 20 points, 47 by at least 30. Only 16 by single digits, and only seven of those the past 27 years. Last March, the 16-seeds went down by 39, 38, 20 and 20.
So gladiators, we salute you. You’re being asked to defy the past, defy the odds, defy logic . . . and more to the point this week, defy Villanova, Virginia, Kansas and Xavier.
At least, maybe the big guys are a tad nervous, wary of being part of history, eager to not take anything for granted, even as everyone else does.
“Nothing changes for us. We play every game like it’s our last,” Villanova’s Jalen Brunson said Wednesday.
“You don’t really want to be that team that does it,” Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham mentioned. “Kind of like being the team to break the (Kansas Big 12) streak. It’s just one of those things that you kind of think about in the back of your head.”
The thing is, the Jayhawks might be in the most danger, because of Penn. “My personal opinion is they don’t resemble a 16 seed at all,” Bill Self said of the Quakers.
Penn has the inspiration of recent Ivy League showings in the NCAA tournament. Princeton coming within two points of Notre Dame last year, Yale over Baylor the year before, Harvard nearly beating North Carolina the year before. And Cornell’s Sweet 16 in 2010. Plus, Princeton is a charter member of the 16-seed Hall of Fame for nearly shocking Georgetown in 1989, the Hoyas barely escaping 50-49.
Maybe the regular season puts a little steel into the Ivies, since they play their league games on Friday and Saturday nights, meaning occasional weekends with back-to-back road tests. “It’s not like we’re flying charters or anything,” Penn’s Matt MacDonald said.
Two other things about the Quakers. Kansas thrives on 3-pointers, and Penn has limited opponents to 29 percent shooting from the arc. And Penn has nine true road wins, so hostile climates have not been an issue.
“Isn’t there non-Kansas fans in Wichita?” Donahue said. “Can’t we get a few on our back a little bit if we get it rolling? I’m kind of hoping for that.
“I do sense that there’s seven other schools here, and six of them are probably rooting for us.”
Is it possible . . .?
They’re wondering that in the Radford camp, too. Coach Mike Jones knows it is. He was an assistant for VCU in 2011. Remember where VCU went in 2011? From controversial First Four spot to Final Four. “That is the point we’ve tried to get across to our team, that anything is possible if you believe,” he said.
The Highlanders understand overcoming low expectations, because they simmered all season about being picked to finish seventh in the Big South.
“Our coach used to put seventh place in the locker room, just put seventh place everywhere,” Radford leading scorer Carlik Jones said. “And we see that coming in the locker room and leaving after, so every day that just motivated us to be better.”
Fun moment here in Pittsburgh. Radford’s players made a scene of their coach Mike Jones’ press conference. pic.twitter.com/iVPvU7f58C— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) March 14, 2018
They don’t seem especially fazed by Villanova’s aura. Take the question about who might be guarding Wildcat star Jalen Brunson.
“I think any of our guys, whoever checks him, is going to give him trouble,” said Ed Polite Jr.
But enough trouble to . . . ?
UMBC is hoping to cause some of that against Virginia. Can the Retrievers’ knack with the books help? There’s not only graduate student Lyles with his 20.2 scoring average and diploma in psychology and sociology – his buzzer beater stunned Vermont in the America East tournament -- but Academic All-American first teamer Joe Sherburne. When he isn’t averaging 10.9 points, he’s rolling along as a financial economics major with a 4.0 grade point average.
Is there any economic formula for a miracle . . .?
Texas Southern will be looking for one the next two days, after blowing by North Carolina Central 64-46. A No. 16 seed beating a No. 1 would be a shocker. A No. 16 seed that started the season 0-13 doing it might knock Earth from its rotation.
Then again, the Tigers shouldn’t be awed by the setting. Coach Mike Davis ran them through a non-conference gauntlet that included Gonzaga, Kansas, Ohio State, Clemson, TCU – 13 consecutive road games in all. Hence, the 0-13 start.
“Nothing we haven’t seen,” Jefferson said of facing Xavier, after torching North Carolina Central for 25 points.
“I didn’t design our schedule to make us feel good," Davis said. "I designed it to make us better."
And how’s that working? A Davis soliloquy on doing things the hard way:
“You can’t train your brain to stay focused unless you go through some tough times. I designed it for us to get better and for us to be tough as a team. If you noticed, nobody on this team celebrated (Wednesday night), nobody jumped up and down high-fiving.
“I kept telling my guys, `You’re the best 0-5, best 0-7 team in the country, the best 0-13 team in the country.’ And they believed. Now we have a chance to put our non-conference schedule into play on Friday night.
“We’re not afraid.”
Jefferson certainly isn’t, never mind he’ll be giving up nine and 11 inches to Xavier guards Quentin Goodin and Trevon Bluiett.
“When you’re 5-7 and you want to do big things and show that you can play with the big fellas,” he said, “you’ve just got to put your heart first and your height second.”
No. 16 seeds. You gotta love ‘em.