We call a lot of sports things miracles. A difficult shot went in! Miracle! A long pass was completed! Miracle!
Holy Cross winning the Patriot League Tournament to earn an NCAA Tournament was a dang miracle, and I can't quite think of any other way to describe it. Allow me to explain:
Holy Cross entered the league tournament with a 10-19 record. That's very bad! The Crusaders were ranked 320th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, which are generally the best predictor available for college hoops games. There are 351 teams in college basketball. The difference between the Crusaders and Bucknell, the league's highest-ranked team, was about as big as the difference between the country's best team and Bucknell.
Pomeroy gave the Holy Cross just a .4 percent chance of making the tournament final and even if they made it, gave them about a 1-in-8 chance of winning the final. All things told, their odds of winning the tournament were .05 percent -- just 1-in-2000.
Even their first and by far easiest game, an 8-9 matchup at Loyola (Maryland) was an upset. The Greyhounds were 5-point favorites and Pomeroy gave them a 74.8 chance of victory. Holy Cross needed to pull this upset just for the opportunity to play top-seeded Bucknell, which Pomeroy gave a 97.5 percent chance at victory.
Sometimes a team that closes the season hot continues to play hot in the tournament. Holy Cross entered the tournament cold as ice. They'd lost five straight, with their last win three weeks earlier against Lafayette, the only team with a worse conference record than themselves.
Most leagues play their tournaments at a neutral site, but the Patriot League allows higher-seeded teams to host their tournament games to give them a bigger advantage and ensure the league's best team goes dancing. Since every team Holy Cross played had a higher seed, they had to play all four of their tournament games on the road. They were 0-9 on the road in the regular season. The Crusaders racked up almost 2,000 miles of travel in the last week or so, and won four consecutive games after not winning one all season.
Holy Cross needed this shot to beat top-seeded Bucknell.
Mind you, this shot -- a hurried off-balance turnaround three after an offensive rebound by one of college basketball's worst offensive rebounding teams -- did not beat Bucknell. It merely forced a second overtime, where the Crusaders still had to beat the league's best team.
All these things were less surprising than what happened next. The Crusaders legitimately blew out Army at Army in the semifinals and immediately took a double-figures lead at Lehigh. The win at Bucknell played out like your typical wild upset: a freaky, fluky, inexplicable game that ended with an underdog winning. In the semis and title game, Holy Cross led from wire-to-wire. The games played out like they were the favorite holding a scrappy, lucky upstart at arm's length.
Lehigh battled back. Its home gym was absolutely raucous in anticipation of clinching a tournament bid against a comfortably sub-.500 team. Tim Kempton, the two-time Patriot League player of the year, was unstoppable down low, finishing and-1 after and-1. He amped up the crowd after each score, and violently protested on the rare occasions his coach took him out.
But it wasn't enough. Holy Cross' Malachi Alexander drilled six of the seven threes he attempted. The Mountain Hawks got three separate looks at open threes in the game's closing seconds. But all three clanged away.
With a spot in the big dance on the line, it's hard to get a more frantic finish than this. https://t.co/lbY483VBMc— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) March 10, 2016
First-year Holy Cross coach Bill Carmody won with a 1-3-1 zone defense and his Princeton offense, and it stifled everybody they played in the tournament. Every team they faced seemed baffled, unable to avoid turnovers and a step slow to get out on 3-point shooters.
These tactics didn't baffle me. Carmody has used them his entire career, including the four years I watched him coach when I went to Northwestern.
Those four years were, sadly, indisputably the best four years in Northwestern basketball history. Northwestern infamously holds the title of the only major conference school never to participate in the NCAA Tournament, but in those four years, NU got close. They made the NIT four straight times, meaning they were in the next 25 or so teams outside of the main field in four consecutive years. This is much harder and -- I promise you -- more painful than making the field once and disappearing for three years.
Carmody left a mixed legacy. Some hated him for his borderline apathy to recruiting. (He famously no-showed Frank Kaminsky, whose Northwestern alum family members wanted him to go to Evanston.) Others praised him for managing success with players nobody else wanted. His complicated offense and uncommon defense kept Northwestern -- and this time around, Holy Cross -- in games they had no business being in.
Some said Carmody's NCAA tourney appearance in his first year at Holy Cross was karma for his firing at NU. If you want to believe in a world governed by karma -- some sort of supreme universal order that settles all debts -- college basketball is not for you. This land is ruled by chaos. There is no karma here: Sometimes bad things happen to good coaches. Sometimes amazing things happen to awful teams. Maybe your debt from a lifetime ago will be settled. Maybe it won't, and instead Duke will get to win for the 700,000th time.
Holy Cross' run is a reminder of this. There's no logic behind what just happened. There are no numbers or statistics to summarize why a seemingly crappy team turned dominant at the perfect moment. There are no words to explain to the screaming Lehigh fans why it was their turn for their season to end and the bad team's turn to seize glory.
In a world with no order, how much you enjoy college basketball depends on how you view things. Maybe you view Bill Carmody as a coach who simply failed to go to the NCAA Tournament. Maybe you view him as a coach who transformed Northwestern's hoops program into something better. It's up to you.
In the grand scheme of things, Holy Cross' run will probably mean nothing. They'll be ranked as a 16-seed and sent to the First Four in Dayton, where they'll play one of the NCAA Tournament's other worst teams. If they win that play-in game, they will probably get crushed two days later by a 1-seed. A month from now, the Crusaders will merely be one of 350 teams that did not win the national championship, if you feel like looking it that way.
Or you could look at the incredible thing Holy Cross just did. The Crusaders went up against four "better" opponents, thousands of fans, a bracket format that made them travel thousands of miles, and pretty much all the odds. They beat all those things, and that's a dang miracle.