Somewhere in the Mojave Desert just outside of Barstow, I listened to the Westwood One radio call of UMBC guard Jairus Myles’ 3-pointer to sink Vermont in the America East Conference championship.
A tremendous finish to a great game, I thought, but what a shame that Vermont won’t get to play in the NCAA Tournament.
The Catamounts dominated the conference all season, and UMBC for the past decade. The Retrievers’ win on March 10 marked their first against Vermont in 24 tries.
It’s nice for UMBC, but what a shame the America East could have sent a No. 12 or 13 seed that could have moved on in the Tournament. Now it’s going to send a No. 16 seed to be a sacrificial lamb.
And, indeed, the Retrievers’ name appeared on Selection Sunday opposite No. 1 overall seed Virginia. Chalk it up for the Cavaliers. You really can’t question my judgment in the moment.
Not only had a No. 16 seed never beaten a No. 1 in 132 attempts prior to the 2018 NCAA Tournament, but…well, this was on UMBC’s resume.
Had you told me in Vegas that the team I was there to cover, Arizona, would be out of the Tournament before the team I listened to on the radio driving up there, I’d have advised you to stay off the hooch.
I have always believed a No. 16 seed would eventually beat a No. 1; I said as much as a guest on NBC Sports Radio this week.
There were too many previous close calls in Tournament history, like Princeton-Georgetown; Western Carolina-Purdue; and Southern-Gonzaga. In a single-elimination format, in games played by young men who range in age from 18 to 23, the NCAA Tournament simply offers too much potential for chaos.
And yet, as prepared for it as I believed myself to be, I’m stunned. Even as UMBC locked Virginia down defensively, hit one critical bucket after another, and built a double-digit-point lead, I anticipated the inevitable Cavaliers comeback that never came.
Sports have long had a way of shocking, but the unpredictable feels especially inevitable in recent years. We’ve seen the long-hapless city of Cleveland have a team rally from down 3-1 in the NBA Finals to beat a 73-game winner — an unreal accomplishment in its own right.
Less than five months later, the Chicago Cubs pulled off their own 3-1 comeback to win the franchise’s first World Series in 108 years.
Both were milestones that, in the moment, seemed too surreal to be true. But neither compares to UMBC’s 16-over-1 upset.
Professional sports leagues feature a few dozen organizations, all with rosters comprised of the top fraction-of-a-percent of athletes in their respective disciplines. The Chicago Cubs may have been hapless for a century, but all it took to end the drought was front-office management with a vision and the right combination of players — not that difficult for one of the wealthiest franchises in all of sports.
Likewise, the city of Cleveland may have been long-suffering, but history has no impact on the planet’s greatest athlete; unless you’re referring to the historical precedent of the team with the best individual typically claiming the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the NBA Finals.
The shock of UMBC winning on Friday transcends them all.
The gap between a No. 1 and No. 16 seed is so pronounced in all facets. Consider the makeup of a 16-seed, as reflected in this year’s crop:
• LIU Brooklyn: A small, private school that was a powerhouse in college basketball’s early days; however, after implication in a massive point-shaving scandal in the 1950s, the program was decimated and disappeared from Div. I ranks until the 1980s.
• Radford: Founded as a women’s teachers college.
• Penn: Member of the Ivy League, which does not grant athletic scholarships.
• North Carolina Central: A member of the HBCU MEAC, the athletic departments of which typically receive far less funding than other Div. I universities.
• Texas Southern: The funding concerns prevalent among SWAC members force many to play nothing but road games in nonconference. Texas Southern didn’t just hit the road in 2017; the Tigers went into Christmas with the toughest Strength of Schedule in the nation, collecting much-needed paychecks for the athletic department along the way.
And then there’s UMBC: a research university with excellent academics, albeit a commuter school. Commuter schools rarely contend in sports, and don’t typically feature the kind of difference-making star like Jairus Lyles, necessary to mount a huge upset.
A 16 beating a 1 required the perfect set of circumstances all aligning simultaneously. Lyles landed at UMBC after transferring from VCU, and ended up there because of its excellent academics. An anecdote Jon Crispin shared on the America East championship broadcast stuck with me: Lyles is working on his Master’s degree.
The Baltimore Sun published a fascinating look at Lyles’ academics last month. It had to be that university with player.
Virginia played a necessary part in the equation. The Cavaliers’ slow pace of play rendered the rally other tested No. 1 seeds like Gonzaga in 2013 or Purdue in 1996 made much more difficult.
Even the timing is just right for the state of college basketball.
From the moment news of the ongoing FBI probe made headlines in September, the national conversation around college basketball focuses on problems in the game. And, to be certain, there are problems with the game, issues with the NCAA that need reform.
Still, college basketball has a magic to it no other sport can quite match.