Commentary

Basketball gods repay fans on Friday

Originally Published: March 16, 2012
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

Maybe we should have seen it coming. Maybe we should have known.

Maybe a pair of No. 2 seeds whose offense so outstripped their defense should have alerted us to their upset potential. Maybe we should have projected these matchups to their most illogical, vulnerable conclusions. Maybe we should have seen Thursday's lone dramatic near-upset -- when UNC Asheville, but for a late collapse and some truly questionable officiating, almost took down Syracuse -- as a sign that the Madness we so crave was just around the corner.

Maybe we should have known: Thursday was mundane, but the basketball gods would repay us. We were due.

But ... how? Do you predict a day like Friday?

You can't know that a tiny, historically black college from the MEAC, making its first NCAA tournament appearance in school history, will rise up and knock off one of the national-title favorites.

And you certainly can't predict this: As Norfolk State sealed the first win by a No. 15 seed in 11 years -- Hampton's 2001 win over Iowa State being the most recent -- 1,159 miles away, in Greensboro, N.C., another No. 15 seed led by a largely unknown star would almost immediately repeat the feat.

[+] EnlargeC.J. McCollum
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonC.J. McCollum has been a star on the mid-major level. Now he's known throughout the nation.

That No. 15 seed was Lehigh. The No. 2 seed was Duke.

As shocking and unbelievable and Madness-worthy as Norfolk State's win was, it wasn't unprecedented; after all, we'd seen 15-seeds prevail before (four times before, to be exact). But Lehigh's win over Duke pushed this day to a new, previously unseen level. For the first time in the history of the tournament, not one but two No. 15 seeds advanced.

Like Norfolk State and its star Kyle O'Quinn, Lehigh accomplished its historic feat thanks in large part to one overwhelming talent: Guard C.J. McCollum, who began the day as a well-known quantity in college hoops circles -- he was the first freshman in the history of the Patriot League to be named its player of the year -- but one few casual fans could hope to pick out of a lineup.

On Friday, he finally earned his moment in the sun. The guard dropped 30 points, six rebounds, six assists and countless big shots on the Blue Devils, slicing and dicing Austin Rivers, Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins, Tyler Thornton and the rest of Duke's highly touted blue-chip backcourt.

"They had the best player on the court tonight," Coach K told reporters after the game.

Unlike Norfolk State, Lehigh got a little extra help from the Blue Devils, who lost for the first time ever against team seeded 12th or worse. While Missouri actually played an excellent offensive game -- it became the first team in the history of the tournament to make 10 3-pointers, shoot at least 50 percent from the field, commit fewer than 10 turnovers and lose -- Duke, a 37.6 percent 3-point shooting team on the season, shot 6-of-26 (23 percent) from beyond the arc.

But that slump doesn't remotely diminish what Lehigh did, taking down one of the nation's great hoops powers and its coach, college basketball's all-time leader in wins, just down the road from that program's hometown. Likewise, nothing in Missouri's performance can take away what Norfolk State did. Neither condition can obscure the baseline truth about what any No. 15 seed does when it overthrows the longest of odds and takes down a No. 2 seed -- because these aren't just upsets on the court. They're upsets on a grand, systemic scale.

Combined, Duke and Missouri wield well over 100 million in their combined athletic budgets; their overall university endowments dwarf that of Lehigh and Norfolk State and any other No. 15 seed you'll ever see. The Blue Devils and Tigers are members of the entrenched college sports aristocracy, the dominion of top-100 recruiting and charter jets and shoe-company contracts and greed-laden conference realignment and billion-dollar television deals.

Lehigh and Norfolk State don't exist in this universe. These schools' recruits aren't elite AAU prospects. Oftentimes, they aren't really prospects at all.

When O'Quinn was interviewed after his 26-point, 14-rebound game, the forward said he was paying a debt to the Spartans' coaching staff for giving him his one and only scholarship offer.

"At the beginning of the season I told my coaches this was my only offer and the only way I could pay them back is a championship," O'Quinn said. "I got that, and this is overtime. I'm paying them back right now with overtime. God knows where I would have been without these coaches."

Ask that question to the Blue Devils or the Tigers. Their answer would be easy: Some other top-flight school. Some other elite program.

Not Kyle O'Quinn. Not C.J. McCollum.

Not Norfolk State. Not Lehigh.


On Friday night, the Norfolk State Spartans were driving toward an Omaha, Neb., steakhouse -- the same place they'd dined Thursday night, about 24 hours before they took the floor against Missouri -- when assistant coach Robert Jones placed a call to a reporter.

[+] EnlargeNorfolk State Missouri post-game
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesOn Friday, it was Norfolk State's Kyle O'Quinn playing the role of big brother to Missouri.

The only other time this reporter had communicated with Jones came in November, via Twitter, after Norfolk State shocked CAA favorite Drexel in the Paradise Jam. The reporter had interpreted this result as a sign of Drexel's weakness, and Jones was ticked: The Spartans, he said, had a pro prospect in O'Quinn, who was drawing interest from NBA scouts. He forwarded the writer's post to O'Quinn and teammates Jamel Fuentes and Kris Brown with the message, "look at this ... motivation!"

In closing, for the sake of precious characters, he abbreviated: "we not that bad lol."

Four months later, Jones was really laughing out loud, laughing last, laughing and yelping and living it up -- alongside head coach Anthony Evans and O'Quinn, the 2012 tournament's first bona fide star -- as the Spartans, fresh off their legendary upset of Missouri, rolled their bus toward that chosen, lucky, blessed Omaha steakhouse.

"We're going to go back there and eat again," Jones said. "And we're going to keep eating there until we lose."

Traditions, even new ones, must be upheld. Just in case. But Jones believed in the Spartans and O'Quinn in November and he believed again in March, as his team waged battle after battle -- "We kept telling the guys: 'If we don't win this game, we die'" -- to get in the NCAA tournament and earn that matchup with the Tigers.

When they saw the matchup, the Norfolk State coaches were thrilled -- not only because they avoided a No. 16 seed, but because they thought, of all the top seeds in the tournament, Missouri was their best chance.

"Anytime you have a player like Kyle, a potential NBA-level-type player in the college game, you have a chance to make things happen," Jones said.

"You just have to get in the tournament. You just have to take your chance."


Thursday's action was so blasé that UConn's apathetic first-round loss to Iowa State -- the first time a defending champion had lost in its first game of the NCAA tournament since Princeton dropped UCLA in 1996 -- was greeted with little more than shrugs.

Friday's action was so intense, so riddled with last-second games and upset specials, it was easy to lose much of it in the fray.

The day began with No. 6 Cincinnati versus No. 11 Texas, in which the Bearcats held off a furious second-half run from the offensively bereft Longhorns just long enough to preserve a 65-59 win. No. 11 NC State toppled No. 6 San Diego State. No. 8-seed Creighton went to the wire with defensive stalwart Alabama before pulling out a 58-57 win. No. 14-seed St. Bonaventure gave No. 3-seed Florida State all it could handle before huge plays from Bernard James and Okaro White sealed a 66-63 victory for the Seminoles.

Deep breath ...

No. 9 seed Saint Louis, led by the typically excellent defensive game planning of coach Rick Majerus, took down an incredibly talented 8-seeded Memphis team for the right to play No. 1 Michigan State in the second round. No. 10 seed Purdue yielded a 13-point lead to 7-seed Saint Mary's before recovering late and winning the game on -- fittingly enough -- two free throws from senior forward Robbie Hummel. No. 12 seed South Florida -- denizens of the First Four and one of the final teams selected in the tournament field -- upended 5-seed Temple, 58-44. No. 10 seed Xavier, battling to redeem a season upended by an ugly brawl, got a go-ahead final bucket from Tu Holloway to take a 67-63 win over 7-seed Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeOhio celebration
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe forgotten upset of the night: a MAC school downing the Big Ten champ.

Deep breath, take two ...

And oh, by the way: 13th-seeded Ohio upset No. 4 seed Michigan. Again, it was easy to forget about this, easy to lose sight of another massive-magnitude win by an MAC team over one of the Big Ten's regular-season co-champions. But the Bobcats not only upset Michigan; they handled the Wolverines from start to finish, building a second-half lead and sustaining it as the Wolverines drew close, but eventually faltered, down the stretch.

Big Ten freshman of the year Trey Burke and star guard Tim Hardaway Jr. were held to 10 of 29 from the field as the Wolverines made just seven of their 23 3-point attempts. Just like that, in comparatively quiet fashion, the most successful and promising season of John Beilein's tenure -- the one that woke Michigan fans from a depressing decades-long slumber -- was over.

Thursday, we pleaded for March Madness. Friday, as Ohio made this the first time in NCAA tournament history three teams seeded No. 13 or lower won on the same day, we came to a staggering realization -- that what we just saw was the maddest six hours in college hoops history.


And still, for everything that transpired, this day will always belong to Lehigh and Norfolk State. Two No. 2 seeds gone. Two No. 15s through. Two massive athletics programs, two havens of high-major hegemony, dropped by tiny schools from Bethlehem, Pa., and Norfolk, Va. It was unprecedented. And was the kind of day no college basketball fan -- correction: no sports fan -- will soon be able to forget.

Those schools, Lehigh and Norfolk State (Lehigh and Norfolk State!) beat Duke and Missouri (Duke and Missouri!). In the NCAA tournament. On the same day.

Within hours of each other, college basketball history was made twice over. That doesn't happen. There are millions of reasons it isn't supposed to happen. But it did. We were witnesses.

We get greedy about the NCAA tournament. It has enchanted us so regularly that we've come to expect unlikely brilliance as a rule. When Thursday proceeded in mostly chalky fashion, we didn't say, "Well, that seems about right. Those teams are better. Duh." We groaned. We complained. "I love you, NCAA tournament, but it's like I don't even know you anymore." I actually wrote that sentence. We've been spoiled.

But even as our expectations heighten, even as we lose our capacity for surprise, the NCAA tournament thrills us anew. It gives us McCollum and Lehigh cannily canning Duke. It gives us Norfolk State, in its first tournament, knocking off 30-win Missouri. It proves to all of us once again that there is nothing quite like March -- nothing like this unique, bizarre, magnificent, three-week competition.

"We had 56 people on our ticket list," Jones said. "We had 56 fans. By the end of the game, there were 10,000."

How many more millions were cheering at home? How many of us became Norfolk State devotees? How many of us fell in love again?

The best part? We didn't see it coming.

Who could have?