We should have known what was coming in college basketball. The opening day of the season gave us a big hint.
Stony Brook fell behind George Washington 22-0. Would the Seawolves, like, score this season? Relax. They tied the game on the last second of regulation, won in overtime.
“We knew (George Washington) was going to make a run,” coach Jeff Boals would later say. “We didn’t know it would be 22-0.”
The same day, Baylor led Texas Southern by 17 points with 14 minutes left. The Bears were 56-0 all-time against SWAC teams. That score seemed to make 57 a lock, right? Wrong. Texas Southern, 72-69.
The Year of the Comeback had begun.
From then to now has been one long series of flips, often followed by flops. Missed free throws, game-changing 3-pointers, ill-timed turnovers, foul luck. Anything, everything. Happens every season, but this seems like an epidemic. By KenPom figuring, there were 58 games won last season won by teams whose deficits gave them less than two-percent probability of survival. There had already been 45 this season through Saturday, and we’re not even in February yet.
Consider this past weekend.
On Sunday, Rider fell behind Marist by 16 points with just over 14 minutes left, then went on a 16-0 run and ended up winning 86-85. Rider leads the MAAC with a 6-1 record, and trailed by double digits in three of the six victories. “We make life interesting,” coach Kevin Baggett said.
On the same day, Cincinnati trailed Temple by 14 points in the second half, then rolled past the Owls to win. For more than 13 minutes in the second half, only one Temple player scored a field goal.
On Saturday, that was Clemson not making a 3-pointer all game, but still leading at North Carolina State by six points with 26.5 seconds left . . . then losing on — yep — Braxton Beverly’s 3-point buzzer-beater. The door was ajar because Marcquise Reed — Clemson’s all-time best free throw shooter with an 86.1 career percentage — went 0-for-4 from the line in the last seconds. “He’s made thousands of free throws for us to seal games,” coach Brad Brownell said. “I feel bad for him.”
That was Missouri leading LSU 70-56 with 2:14 left . . . and losing in overtime. Skylar Mays scored nine points in a row, and Missouri doomed itself with three late turnovers. LSU coach Will Wade turned to his golfing past to describe it: “It’s like I told our guys in the locker room, we’re out of mulligans after that.”
That was Eastern Washington ahead of Sacramento State by 10 points with 93 seconds left, going 6-for-6 from the free throw line in hopes of clinching the outcome . . . but still getting taken into overtime. The Eagles survived 94-92, to improve on their unsightly 0-10 road record.
The poster team of this zig-zagging season?
Oh, that’s easy. Meet Old Dominion.
On Jan. 5, the Monarchs missed their first 12 shots and fell behind Western Kentucky by three touchdowns, 21-0. It took them more than seven minutes to score a point. They won 69-66, anyway.
Yeah, but that street goes both ways. Saturday, they were leading UTSA by 17 points with just over three minutes left in San Antonio. They lost 74-73. The Roadrunners hit six 3-pointers and had two steals, and Old Dominion missed six of its last 10 free throws. “If you walked out of here with four minutes to go, you would have said that we got whooped,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “And we got whooped for 16 minutes of the second half.”
The Maestros of Comeback Shockers? May we suggest the Texas Southern Tigers, who weren’t supposed to beat either of these teams? They followed that opening day rush past Baylor with a five-point win at Oregon, after trailing by 13 points in the second half.
And so it has gone, from sea to shining sea. Safe-looking leads might as well be scoops of ice cream on a hot sidewalk.
It could be Oklahoma State leading Charlotte by 24 points with just over 12 minutes left . . . and losing 66-64 when the 49ers’ Jon Davis scored five points in the last 4.2 seconds. Ahead 64-61, Oklahoma State fouled Davis with the idea of preventing a 3-point shot to tie. Officials called it a flagrant foul, so Charlotte got the free throws and the ball. Davis hit both free throws, then banked in a 3-pointer with 0.6 seconds left.
Two months later, Oklahoma State would roll ahead of rival Oklahoma by 19. And lose that one by nine.
It could be Valparaiso trailing Illinois State by 10 points with 2:07 left, having gone 13:50 without a field goal in one stretch. Then winning on a 50-foot banker at the buzzer.
It could be Oregon leading UCLA by 17 points with 6:35 to play and by nine with 58 seconds to go, and losing in overtime. “A gut punch,” Ducks coach Dana Altman called it.
It could be DePaul falling behind Penn State 11-0 by committing six turnovers on its first seven possessions, but winning by two points in overtime.
Or Michigan spotting North Carolina a 21-11 head start, then outscoring the Tar Heels 73-46 in the next 32 minutes to win 84-67.
Or Florida State going from 16 ahead of Purdue, to eight down, to winning 73-72.
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It could be Wake Forest giving up a 14-point lead and losing in overtime to Houston Baptist. Stephen F. Austin down seven points with 26 seconds left, but beating Abilene Christian. Florida Atlantic down 26-6 after 13 ½ minutes against UCF, but cutting the margin to four before halftime, and winning at the end.
It could happen in different ways. Georgia State came from 22 points down to beat Alabama on a walk-off 3-pointer. Idaho State rallied from 18 points in the second half to get past Boise State with two free throws at 0.6 seconds.
It could be Cleveland State losing at the buzzer after blowing a 16-point lead in the last 6:06 against Green Bay. Or Florida without a field goal in the last 7:17 to squander a 14-point lead over South Carolina. Or Arizona State, so anxious to reassert itself after being shocked by Princeton, rolling up a 17-point lead on Utah, then giving up 57 points in the second half and losing by 10.
Sometimes, it could be individual players doing the rallying.
Josiah Wallace had no points at halftime for Eastern Illinois, then scored 31 in the second half in a 90-86 overtime win over Arkansas State. B.J. Stith had zero points and five turnovers at halftime for Old Dominion against Syracuse, apologized to his teammates in the halftime locker room, then scored 18 in the second half to lead an upset. Marquette gave Buffalo its first loss when Markus Howard followed a pedestrian five points in the first half with a legendary 40 in the second.
Sometimes, it could be teams getting away with felonious lead squandering. Ohio gave away all of a 19-point advantage in 13 minutes against Detroit Mercy, but survived 63-61. Toledo blew a 21-point lead before beating Marshall 75-74, in a game with five lead changes in the last 91 seconds of overtime.
Just Sunday, Michigan State needed only seven minutes to shave a 23-point Purdue advantage to four, turning Mackey Arena’s noise from a jet turbine to a worried murmur. But the Boilermakers held on. Afterward, Tom Izzo tried to give a theory or two on why so many leads vanish.
“None of us have the depth that we used to have. Because nobody’s going to just stay; they’ll transfer or go pro or go somewhere,” he said. “Also there’s a lot more games in a short period of time. People may be wearing out.”
Probably also the ever-popular 3-point line, and bad free throw shooting, and not enough ball-handers. Or just an act of the basketball gods.
Because it could be Creighton. KenPom declares this the unlikeliest comeback of the season, and who could argue? That’s the one where the Bluejays had a three-point lead over Marquette and the ball out of bounds with 0.8 seconds left. There are about 10 things Creighton could have done then, and nine of them are good.
The only bad choice was throw the ball out of bounds with nobody touching it. Marquette possession, then a 3-pointer, then overtime, and finally a 106-104 loss for Creighton that would break the heart of a killer shark. The signature moment of the Year of the Comeback. So far.
Nobody seems immune. But then there’s this: Kentucky’s victory over Kansas made John Calipari 249-5 in games where the Wildcats led at some stage by double digits. A remarkable stat — especially this season.