A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Day and the NCAA Tournament

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A happy St. Patrick’s Day from The Open Man to you and yours! As you prepare for an evening that possibly includes crappy light beer dyed a radioactive shade of green, stop to consider the heritage of St. Patrick’s Day.

It’s a holiday with cultural and religious significance in Ireland, and a holiday deeply* tied to basketball in the United States.

The university bearing the nickname Fighting Irish has never won an NCAA basketball championship, but Notre Dame had an impressive run during the 1970s.

Austin Carr set the Irish on their course at the beginning of the decade, winning National Player of the Year in 1971 with a staggering average of 38 points per game. Remarkably, Carr’s individual numbers dipped ever-so-slightly from his award-winning senior season, compared to a junior year in which he put up 38.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.

Carr ranks among the very best players in college basketball history. He served as the forerunner to memorable Notre Dame teams that included Adrian Dantley, who averaged 30.4 and 28.6 points per game in his junior and senior seasons, and as a sophomore, played on the Irish bunch to end UCLA’s 88-game winning streak; and the 1978 Final Four squad.

Notre Dame has yet to make it back to the Final Four in the 40 years since, but Mike Brey has had it close.

The Irish’s 2015 Elite Eight loss to Kentucky was oh-so-close to being one of the greatest upsets in Tournament history, given the Wildcats’ bevy of NBA talent and unblemished record. In the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day, The Open Man remembers other great upset-minded teams.

Before UMBC stunned Virginia, No. 15 seeds beating No. 2 seeds marked the pinnacle of March Madness upsets. There have been just eight in Tournament history, including Norfolk State’s St. Patrick’s Day eve defeat of Missouri in 2012.

Missouri exited the Big 12 Conference that year with a tournament championship en tow, and a rather ugly farewell when Tigers fans added their voices to the obnoxious “S-E-C!” chant during the trophy presentation. Well, Norfolk State’s win in the 2012 Tournament counts against the SEC as a result. Sorry, them’s the rules.

The Tigers had no answer that day for Kyle O’Quinn, who went off for 26 points and 14 rebounds in the historic win. 

In 1986, just one year after the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, Mouse McFadden helped No. 14 seed Cleveland State to the first real Cinderella run of the modern era. McFadden scored a crucial 23 points in the Vikings’ Round of 32 win over Saint Joseph’s on St. Patrick’s Day eve.

A one-point loss to the Admiral and his Navy Midshipmen teammates was all that separated from the 14-seed from an Elite Eight. The Saint Joseph’s program Cleveland State upended in the Second Round reached the Elite Eight 18 years later, but an underdog team a few years earlier laid the groundwork.

The 2001 Hawks lineup featured a backcourt with point guard Jameer Nelson playing alongside scoring machine, Marvin O’Connor.

O’Connor had a strong First Round against Georgia Tech, scoring 21 points with three rebounds, two steals and two assists, but his performance against No. 1 seed Stanford in the Round of 32 ranks among the most impressive individual showings I’ve ever watched in any NCAA Tournament.

O’Connor was seemingly unguardable on his way to 37 points, going 5-of-10 from beyond the 3-point arc, and 10-of-10 from inside it. O’Connor’s otherworldly shooting touch on St. Patrick’s Day 2001 very nearly advanced the Hawks past the No. 1 overall seed.

Cleveland State’s other victim in the 1986 Tournament, Indiana, didn’t need quite as long to recover from the loss. The Hoosiers won the national championship the next season, then returned to the Final Four in 1992.

Indiana’s 1992 Final Four run included a win over LSU, but not before Shaquille O’Neal scored 36 points; grabbed 12 rebounds; and, perhaps most remarkable of all, shot 12-of-12 from the free throw line.

Shaq deserves credit not only for his sometimes under-appreciated dominance while at LSU, but his role in the entire premise of this column. After all, it’s loosely adapted from an old Conan O’Brien bit that depicted celebrities with Irish last names like, including “O’Neal,” with bright red hair akin to Conan’s.

On that note, this column dubiously capitalizing on a holiday concludes with an important question: Had LeBron James‘ St. Vincent/St. Mary’s Irish basketball team all committed to the same university for the 2003-04 season, how far would it have gone in the NCAA Tournament?

Before answering, consider that LeBron went to the NBA Finals three years later with a roster featuring Larry Hughes as its second-highest scorer.

Also consider the impact LeBron might have had on a college team in comparison to Gerry McNamara. The guard was central to a Syracuse national championship, and without him a few years later, the Orange would have won…well, let’s let Jim Boeheim tell it.

*”deeply” may mean “not at all.”

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