Just because you’re the higher seed that’s supposed to win, doesn’t guarantee you’ll survive and advance to play another round in the NCAA Tournament. The name on your jersey doesn’t play defense or rebound. The analysts who speak with certainty on the odds of certain teams prevailing can’t deliver clutch shots to punch Cinderella’s ticket to the next dance. Fans gathered at sports bars around the country, rising and falling with every shot, definitely won’t be diving for any loose balls.
If it were up to the experts, Dewey would have defeated Truman. Muncie Central would have walked all over tiny Milan High. And, yes, even back in their day, if the experts decided things, David would never have pulled a stone from his bag and slung it, striking down Goliath.
Sensing a familiar refrain? The Charles Barkleys and Doug Gottliebs of the college basketball world have already penciled in Gonzaga to make light work of North Dakota State. They’re too big. We’re too small. They’re a couple steps too fast. We’re a few steps too slow. They score at breakneck speeds. We use every second of the shot clock. Their bench is deep. Our point guard leads the nation in minutes played.
The thing about March, though, is that you can throw all of that in the blender and, on any given day, it just doesn’t matter. Why? Because players decide games, not analysts, and sometimes players do things that nobody besides themselves saw coming.
“You’re the underdog, there’s no pressure on you,” explained Lawrence Alexander, the only senior for the Bison. The Summit League player of the year made a name for himself in last year’s tournament when he scored 28 points in an upset victory over Oklahoma, including a three-pointer that sent the game into overtime. “Knowing that anything can happen on a neutral floor … it’s one thing I try to do is give my teammates confidence knowing that once the ball goes up, it’s anybody’s game.”
Maybe a bit cliché for your taste, or perhaps too much Disney for your liking. Well, there’s a reason the underdog in this tournament is called Cinderella and grown men talk about wearing a glass slipper. You can create your own fairy tale moment, and in the process, give the giant a nightmare. Ask Iowa State and Baylor. Both were No. 3 seeds heavily favored to beat their opponents on Thursday. If it were up to the experts, those opponents, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Georgia State, lowly No. 14 seeds, would have packed only a single change of clothes in their bags and been boarding charter flights back home tonight.
But then a funny thing happened. Players decided the games, and UAB and GSU decided they weren’t quite ready to go home. And they’re not going home. Instead, Iowa State and Baylor are. Buzzers were beaten, brackets were busted and analysts were left scrambling to make sense of it all. That’s why they call it March Madness, not March Prudence.
“I think that’s what makes March special,” said NDSU coach Dave Richman. As Richman knows from last year when the Bison knocked off the Sooners, anything can, and does, happen. “It’s a fun time of year and anything can happen. For those guys, UAB, Georgia State, they played for 40 minutes today. They played one game. That’s what we’re going to do tomorrow night.”
If NDSU upsets Gonzaga, it will be only the eighth time in the history of the tournament that a No. 15 seed slung their stone and struck down a mighty No. 2 seed. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 2 seeds are 113–7 against No. 15 seeds. Curiously enough, three of those wins have come during the last three seasons.
Like UAB and Georgia State, if NDSU can somehow manage to keep things close into the second half, the Bison will find themselves where they’ve been all year long – with a chance to win in the closing minutes. In that category, they’ll have a decided advantage over the Bulldogs, who are not used to playing in tight games.
The formula is anything but magic. There’s no dust, no potions, and don’t expect any rabbits to be pulled from the hat. “Everything we do is always going to be about us,” concluded Kory Brown, NDSU’s lockdown defender and a three-year starter. “Playing our defense, our game. Them being one of the top shooting teams in the country, we just got to make sure we close out tight, have high hands at all times or have a hand up at all times and make sure that no one’s left wide open. Everything’s got to be contested for us to give us a shot in this game.”
Easier said than done? Sure. But if the Bison can execute their game plan, and keep things within reach late, UAB and GSU may have some company in their ranks when the clock strikes midnight tonight.