DAYTON, Ohio – And they’re off and dancing in the NCAA tournament. How do we know for sure?
Look at the faces on the St. Bonaventure Bonnies Tuesday night in the First Four, after they pulled off the school’s first NCAA tournament victory in 48 years.
“It can’t get better,” coach Mark Schmidt said.
There’s a new, nifty wrinkle in the tournament this season. A huge bracket will be carried into the winning locker room after each game, and a player will be chosen by his teammates to place a sticky label with the team’s name on the next round. A rite of passage sure to always draw cheers loud enough to make the walls rattle.
By acclimation, the Highlanders picked freshman walk-on Anias Saunders. Someone handed him the label, and he slapped it on the next line — first round Thursday in Pittsburgh, against Villanova. “Don’t that look good?” Radford coach Mike Jones said to his players, and the room roared. They can get to the reality of being in Villanova’s way later.
Yep, it’s started.
What could one night and two games tell us already?
That St. Bonaventure is full of pluck, and a Cinderella story all ready for March.
Not just because the Bonnies survived 65-58 over UCLA — a program that has celebrated six national championships since the last time St. Bonaventure won a tournament game in 1970.
Not just because the school with 1,660 undergraduate students beat the school with 30,000.
Not just because their leading scorer — Jaylen Adams, their all-time leading scorer among guards — was 1-for-15 the first 39 minutes, and still fearlessly buried a jumper to swing the game with a UCLA hand in his face with 49 seconds left.
Courtney Stockard is the kind of fairy tale meant for this month. He showed up at St. Bonaventure two years ago from junior college, all ready to play. Then broke his foot.
He worked all year to come back the next season. Then broke the same bone on the first day of practice in 2016. It would be another season, but he refused to back down to fate.
Tuesday night, playing with a shaky hamstring, he destroyed UCLA with 26 points. He’s an all-perseverance first teamer.
“He picked up the whole team. It wouldn’t have been possible without him,” Adams said.
“I can’t let an opportunity like this pass,” Stockard said.
Oh, that’s made for March, all right.
There was much more to learn from Dayton Tuesday night.
That the Pac-12’s season of woe just got even worse. UCLA’s ugly demise — Bruins leading scorer Aaron Holiday had seven field goals and 10 turnovers — brought into focus just how tough times are for the league.
The conference had only three teams invited to the tournament. And two of them are in the First Four.
Only one conference team is above the No. 11 seed line – Arizona at No. 4. And you want the epitome of a mixed blessing? The Pac-12 set a record for sending its most teams ever . . . to the NIT.
The league’s most recent national championship was 21 years and four U.S. presidents ago. Arizona in 1997. Miles Simon was MOP of that Final Four. He’s 42 years old now.
Tuesday night didn’t help any of that. Arizona State, you’re up Wednesday.
That Radford not only made history with its first NCAA tournament victory ever, but it means the Highlanders will be taking their warmup fashion statement to Pittsburgh.
An explanation might be in order.
The seniors noticed the other day what happens if you take the first letter from each. Which is why Radford is taking the court in the tournament with warmups that have this on the front: C.H.E.E.S.E.
That you can go home again. At least redshirt freshman Carlik Jones could. The Radford redshirt freshman guard grew up less than an hour away in Cincinnati and had large platoon of family and friends in the stands Tuesday. He responded with 12 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists — flirting with the first triple-double in the tournament since 2012.
Michigan State’s Draymond Green had the most recent triple-double, by the way. Against LIU Brooklyn.
“Honestly, I couldn’t tell you how many off my head,” Jones said of the size of his fan club. “It’s just big to be able to come back home and perform in front of my family and friends that haven’t been able to see me play.”
“I’m so happy for him, having a chance to play. I didn’t get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament,” Jones said. “Hopefully, somehow, some way, my wife or my son can see him play.”
So Mike Jones will be coaching against Villanova in Pittsburgh, and Nate Jones playing against Michigan State in Detroit the next day.
“If we can find a way to win the game on Thursday,” Jones said, “I think he’ll understand it if I’m not at his game on Friday.”
Pretty good opening night, huh? With more quickly to come.
Wednesday night, it’s North Carolina Central, the team that starts two freshmen and a walk-on. And Texas Southern, the team that started the season 0-13.
“They’re not knowledgeable enough right now to know what they’re up against, and I think that’s a good thing,” NCCU coach LeVelle Moton said of his Eagles. “I think when you know the task at hand, sometimes it can freeze you. Sometimes it can paralyze you in the moment.”
After that, it’ll be the study in contrast between Arizona State and Syracuse. The Sun Devils, with the offense that runs up 83.5 points a game. The Orange with the zone that limits opponents to 64.5, and can be so hard on teams getting their first look. “When you haven’t seen it up close and personal at all,” Syracuse’s Frank Howard said, “I think it can be very difficult to attack.”
Arizona State with Bobby Hurley, coaching in his second NCAA tournament. Syracuse with Jim Boeheim, coaching in his 33rd. Hurley saw enough of March as a Duke player, though, and was talking about the time he played against Syracuse — and Boeheim.
“It was my first game on TV and it was my first big-time game. And it was the Big East/ACC Challenge. I think Derrick Coleman won the tip and he tipped it to Billy Owens. And then Billy Owens took like, two dribbles, and I was the last guy back. Then he threw a lob to Stevie Thompson. He just dunked right over me. It was the first 10 seconds of my college career.”
Hurley is hoping for better Wednesday night. He is hoping that two guys carry a big bracket into his locker room afterward, with a new card for someone to place. March is here.