Congrats to the UMBC Retrievers for their amazing victory over #1 overall seed Virginia last night. It was a tremendous victory made all the more enjoyable by the UMBC Athletics Twitter feed that followed the game and routinely kept the Twitter-sphere entertained with gems like this one:
And this one:
If you didn’t get a chance to watch it, they were fantastic. They played great defense, played up tempo, and moved the ball around very quickly. The vaunted Virginia defense was unable to keep up with the Retrievers’ brilliant ball movement. Ultimately, though, as in the OU game against Rhode Island, it came down to making shots. UMBC made theirs and Virginia missed theirs. They’re a great story. Here’s hoping that they keep playing well as they go up against Kansas St. on Sunday.
As for Virginia, the webs will be filled with recriminations for Tony Bennett, the Cavs’ style of offense, their tempo, how their season was a failure, and how they aren’t equipped to win in March. To all of that, I call B.S. This was a great season for Virginia; it’s just that it ended horribly. They won the ACC regular season and postseason tournament — the 2nd toughest conference in the country and 1 that is certainly better at the top than the Big 12. They were a #1 seed and, in fact, the overall #1 seed. They’ll be remembered for a very long time for how this ended and they’re obviously not going to make it to Tony Bennett’s first Final 4 or win a National Championship, but the season was an undeniable success. The Cavs just have to be wishing that last night’s game happened in November rather than March.
Virginia’s loss last night reminds me of some of the Sooners March disappointments and 1 very narrow escape. In 2005, the team was a #3 seed when the team lost in the 2nd round to #6 seeded Utah. That’s not the worst thing in the world but when you’re a #3 seed you sort of anticipate making it to the Sweet Sixteen. In 2001, the Sooners were a #4 seed and were upset in the first round by #13 Indiana St. in overtime. Even Kelley Newton’s 26 points weren’t enough to overcome the team shooting 40% for the game.
The year before that 1st round upset, the Sooners again lost as a #3 seed, this time to #6 seeded Purdue. Purdue scored an additional 10 points at the free throw line and the Sooners lost by 4. In 1995, Kelvin Sampson’s first season, the Sooners were a #4 seed facing #13 Manhattan. Despite Ryan Minor’s 24 points and a 5 point halftime lead, the Jaspers outscored OU by 15 points in the 2nd half and pulled away to a 77-67 victory.
When the Sooners lost that 1st round matchup to Manhattan, it had been 3 years since the Sooners had been in the tournament. In 1992, OU was again a #4 seed playing #13 Louisiana-Lafayette. Jeff Webster’s 23 points weren’t enough to prevent the 87-83 upset by the Ragin’ Cajuns. In 1990, the Sooners were a 1-seed facing North Carolina when Rick Fox made 5 3-pointers en route to 23 total points and the upset by the 8-seeded Tar Heels.
The Sooners again were upset as a 4-seed in 1996 when they lost in the 2nd round to #12 seeded DePaul and against 10th seeded Dayton in 1994 when they were a #2 seed but the one that compares most similarly to Virginia’s loss last night is the one that almost happened. In 1999, the Sooners entered the tournament 28-5 as the Big 8 champs and averaging nearly 102 points per game. They were a #1 seed facing #16 East Tennessee State. ETSU had finished 7-7 in their conference before winning the Southern Conference tournament. They averaged 83.0 points per game but averaged giving up 83.1 points per game. There’s no reason for them to have been in the game against the Sooners but OU was able to squeak out a 72-71 victory, narrowly avoiding the ignominy that Virginia is experiencing today.
So what’s the point? Why take this trip down memories of NCAA tournament failures lane? The bottom line is that teams only end up the victims of big March upsets when they’ve had fantastic seasons in the first place. Virginia is a tremendous program and OU has been a tremendous program for most of the last 30 years. Just in that period of time I went through in this post, the Sooners also made it to 3 Final 4’s and several other Sweet Sixteens and Elite Eights. If you play enough big games in March, eventually you’ll fall on the wrong end of one.
I’d love for the Sooners to be a #1 seed, Big 12 conference champions, the #1 overall seed, and a 98% favorite to win their first tournament game next season. That, obviously, means a 2% of doing the unthinkable — what UMBC did last night.
Thanks for reading.