SportsPulse: The madness is finally here. USA TODAY’s Trysta Krick breaks down everything you need to know about this year’s tournament.
When Gardner-Webb’s basketball team returned to practice after celebrating the first NCAA tournament berth in school history, coach Tim Craft showed his players a mashup of some of the biggest March Madness upsets ever.
Invariably, one game in particular had a prominent role in the video, as it will in all NCAA tournament reels from now until the end of time.
“We probably had 10 or 12 highlights of those types of upsets throughout the tournament’s history to create a sense of belief that dreams can happen,” Craft said. “One of them was the UMBC-Virginia game. Of course, we had no idea we’d be playing Virginia.”
Gardner-Webb, champions of the Big South Conference, will have the distinction Friday of being the first NCAA tournament opponent for No. 1 seed Virginia since its historic and humiliating defeat to UMBC, which last March became the first No. 16 seed in 136 tries to win a first-round game.
In the short-term, that’s probably not great news for Gardner-Webb, which will almost certainly have Virginia’s full attention this weekend. But in the bigger picture, it raises an interesting question: Now that UMBC has proven a 16-over-1 upset can happen, how quickly will it happen again?
“I would put my guard up now every year going forward because 16 seeds know what can be done. They’ve seen it,” ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said. “I’m not going to say it’ll happen within the next two or three years, but no one should now automatically say, ‘All the 1s advance’ because you have to look at the styles, the number of good players out there and the belief factor now. There has to be the first time before there’s a second time. So I think any coach of a 16 seed is saying to his guys, ‘We know it can happen, so let’s do it again.’”
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In reality, for all the conversation over the last year about UMBC 74, Virginia 54 as something of a seminal moment in NCAA tournament history, perhaps the biggest upset is that it took 34 years to happen.
After the tournament expanded to 64 in 1985, it took only one year for a No. 14 seed to beat a No. 3, which has subsequently happened 20 more times.
The first No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2 came in 1991 when Richmond upset Syracuse. And while those upsets have occurred with less frequency, we no longer think of them as impossible. In fact, we should probably expect them every few years given that they’ve happened in 2016, 2013, 2012 (twice), 2001, 1997 and 1993, victimizing blueblood programs like Duke, Michigan State, Arizona and Georgetown.
So wouldn’t the natural progression of that trend mean that a 1 seed should get knocked off in the first round perhaps once or twice a decade rather than once every 35 years?
“It wouldn’t surprise me if it happens again,” UMBC athletics director Tim Hall said. “I think there is talent at our level, and if you have a really good coach who can put a gameplan together, you can catch someone. But I also think if it doesn’t happen it would be because no No. 1 seed wants to be in a position to feel like Virginia felt, so they’re going to take every opponent seriously starting with the 16 seed.”
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While UMBC’s win felt momentous because it was something the tournament had never seen before, and because the 20-point margin seemingly came out of nowhere, the truth is something like that was probably overdue when you consider how many close calls there had been for prior No. 1 seeds.
A Jud Heathcote-coached Michigan State team needed overtime to beat Murray State in 1990, North Carolina and Fairfield were tied with seven minutes left in 1997, and Fairleigh-Dickinson had twice sniffed a 16-over-1 upset — once in 1985 before falling to Michigan, 59-55, then again in 2005 when it trailed Illinois by just a point at halftime before losing by 12.
In 2006, UConn could have easily been taken out by Albany, which led 50-38 with 8 1/2 minutes to go before faltering at the finish line, while Pittsburgh led East Tennessee State by just a basket with 4 1/2 minutes left before making a few plays down the stretch to survive.
“We’ve seen a lot of 1 seeds in the past that are in a tight ballgame with six or seven minutes to go and close it out by 12 or 14 and we just kind of dismiss it and go on,” Dykes said. “It’s been sitting there cooking on the stove for awhile.”
The question, though, was what it would take for a 16 seed to actually finish the job, especially since the tendency for a big underdog is to play conservatively or nervously once it actually realizes it can win the game.
And UMBC was as unlikely as any candidate ever to actually get it done, particularly against an opponent that had gone 31-2 and had been the nation’s No. 1 defensive team by a pretty significant margin.
Interest in what might be brewing that night began to pique around the country when UMBC pulled into a 21-all tie at halftime. But like everyone else watching, Georgia coach Tom Crean thought a big Virginia run was coming because, if nothing else, that’s what typically occurs when a superior team sees its moment of mortality.
“In most cases, you get down, you kick another gear in,” Crean said. “They never got that other gear. (UMBC) had Virginia chasing the game the whole way. No one ever thinks it’s going to happen to them, but when your energy and the spirit of the game changes and you can’t get it back, it can happen to anybody.”
If there’s anything for No. 16 seeds this year and in the future to learn from, it’s the way UMBC kept aggressively running its offense and going for fast-break baskets, even as it hit a few shots early in the second half to build a double-digit lead. At that point, there was no slowing down the pace or trying to bleed the shot clock, which could have led to bad, contested shots and transition opportunities going the other way. UMBC just kept running its stuff, and with each positive play the momentum fed on itself, all the way until Virginia simply realized it had no path to a comeback over the final five minutes.
“When you see those type of upsets, what you see is a group playing really confidently and really loose and free and that’s the way we’re going to have to play,” Craft said. “We have to go in and feel like we’ve got no pressure and play loose and free and put our best 40 minutes together.”
In retrospect, Virginia may have been a uniquely susceptible No. 1 seed that night not only because it was the slowest-paced team in the country but also because small forward De’Andre Hunter — regarded by some as Virginia’s most important two-way player — had been injured in the ACC tournament.
It also helped that fifth-year senior Jairus Lyles, a power conference-level talent who landed at UMBC after a winding career path, played the game of his life and scored 28 points on the night everyone was watching.
“If we’d played Duke or Carolina or Gonzaga, they maybe would have just out-athleted us,” Hall said. “But Virginia’s system being so different from ours played into our favor a little bit.”
Still, the upset of all NCAA tournament upsets isn’t just going to be a cautionary tale for No. 1 seeds from now on. It will also be a source of inspiration for others trying to do the same thing.
“You have to use it as a point of reference to give your guys the confidence and opportunity to go in there and fight hard and somehow hope they have some magic happen for them,” said Iona coach Tim Cluess, whose team will play North Carolina on Friday.
And though every No. 1 seed will certainly be alerted to the upset possibilities, there’s absolutely going to be another moment in the next few years where one of them faces the same predicament Virginia did last year where they miss a few shots, get down by 10 points and suddenly see the belief factor shift against them.
“If I’m coaching a 16 seed, I’m showing the level of execution that led to that energy, beating people off the dribble, the running,” Crean said. “They had fun because they were executing, not just because they were making shots. If I were coaching a 1 seed, I’d focus on the spirit and and energy UMBC had because that’s a teaching moment.
“What happens is the more you win, the more invincible you believe you become and you can’t let that happen.”
We know now that No. 1 seeds, in fact, aren’t invincible. And it probably won’t take another 34 years to be reminded of that.