I remember Kyle O’Quinn going crazy early. He was Norfolk State’s star, and he seemed custom-built to take advantage of Missouri’s deficiency in the post. He scored six of the Spartans’ first nine points, and NSU took a 15-7 lead.
I remember guys I’d never heard of making three-pointer after three-pointer. Norfolk State, which shot a miserable 31.5 percent on threes for the season, made 10 of 19 that day in Omaha. I remember an airball from the baseline turning into a three-point play.
I remember this photo. This perfect, haunting picture. In the Rock M Nation photo tool that offseason, it was the search default for months.
Thursday is the first big day of the 2017 NCAA tournament.
Thursday is also the five-year anniversary of the death of Missouri basketball. Half a decade later, Mizzou fans pull “It’s a shame the 2012 NCAA tournament was canceled haha” jokes, but can’t quite grin, not after everything that followed: two years of slow decline under Frank Haith, three of rapid descent under Kim Anderson.
Curses don’t exist. But some losses are so painful and their aftermath so linear, curses feel like the only explanation for such perfect pain.
You never know when your program is going to experience a curse-worthy loss, and you cannot do anything to prevent it. But I felt it’s a public service to help you with the eight warning signs that your team is about to be blindsided. The sooner you brace for the pain, the more prepared you are. You’re welcome.
1. You look at your opponent’s roster and think, “Damn, this team has a lot of seniors.”
Stephen F. Austin probably should have been seeded much higher than No. 14. The Lumberjacks, led by soon-to-be Oklahoma State head coach Brad Underwood, were 27-5 and winners of 20 straight, and while none of those 27 were against particularly impressive competition, the Jacks were in Ken Pomeroy’s opponent-adjusted top 40.
More importantly, the Jacks were seasoned. It was their third straight NCAA tournament, and they had beaten VCU there two years prior. And their rotation featured five seniors and two juniors. This team wasn’t going to get blinded by the spotlight.
SFA took on No. 3 seed West Virginia, and with the game tied late in the first, the more experienced team made its move. The Jacks made runs of 11-2 and 10-2 and pulled away to win, 70-56.
This year’s seasoned, under-seeded team might be North Carolina Central. The Eagles play seven seniors, and in non-conference play, they beat Missouri and took both Ohio State and LSU to the wire. Per the Pomeroy ratings, there are seven teams ranked below NCCU, which makes it a joke that the Eagles were relegated to play-in status. Regardless, they should handle UC Davis, and they won’t be intimidated when facing Kansas in the round of 64.
2. The other team’s star player is either a) really, really good, b) a coach’s son, or c) both.
O'Quinn has averaged 14 minutes and five points per game over parts of five NBA seasons. Kenneth Faried, who had 12 points and 17 rebounds in Morehead State's 2011 upset of Louisville, has averaged 12 points per game in the NBA since.
If you're facing a low-seeded team, it doesn't have multiple NBA-level players, but in a single-elimination tournament, all you need is a single player having one wild game.
None of the super-low seeds this year have a player projected highly in the NBA draft — the closest is Nevada with Cameron Oliver, but the Wolf Pack are a 12 seed, which is a little too good for a truly crippling upset — but Winthrop (a No. 13 seed taking on Butler) does boast Keon Johnson and his 22.5-point average.
Oh yeah, and if your opponent’s star is also the coach’s son, you’re definitely screwed.
3. Your star commits his second foul really, really early.
Your team has a clear talent advantage. Great. But your best guy is on the bench for the final 15 minutes of the first half because he just got his second foul, and college coaches seem to think that if a player picks up a third foul in the first half, he’s disqualified.
The camera continuously pans to your kid, staring into the void and sitting next to a nameless assistant coach. Your opponent is playing with its hair on fire, and the head coach you’d come to really like? He looks like he’s passing a kidney stone.
4. Your star freshman suddenly looks like a freshman.
Call this the Jabari Parker rule. The 6'8 blue-chipper averaged 19 points and nine rebounds for Duke in 2013-14. He possessed a maturity beyond his years, and within three seasons he would be averaging 20 points for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Against Mercer in the first round of the 2014 NCAAs, however, he looked like a guy who had just turned 19. He shot 4 for 14 and committed four fouls and four turnovers, and Duke ended up yanking up 37 three-pointers. Granted, they made a lot of them, but their interior advantage was minimized. The Blue Devils made just seven two-pointers, and Mercer pulled a 78-71 upset.
Duke recovered from that loss, but your program probably isn’t Duke.
Plenty of highly seeded 2017 teams — Kentucky, Arizona, UCLA, Duke — are reliant on key freshmen. Just saying.
5. They’re beating you to every damn loose ball.
You never want to take an opponent lightly, but sometimes you can't help it. If you're a 2 or 3 seed in the NCAAs, you've beaten a lot of good teams, and you've got your mind on a Final Four run. But this damn team of hustling gnats won't let you walk away without a fight, and you find you're not really interested.
Fresh off of a Big 12 Tournament title, 25-win Iowa State drew a 3 seed in the 2015 NCAAs. Fred Hoiberg's Cyclones had beaten Kansas and Oklahoma twice each. They were a popular Final Four pick. They were a pretty good defensive rebounding team, and while they weren't much on the offensive glass, they had one of the best shooting teams in the country.
Against UAB in the 3-14 game, they shot just 37 percent from the floor. The Blazers shot just 35 percent themselves, but while ISU grabbed only nine offensive rebounds, UAB nabbed 18. ISU star Georges Niang battled foul trouble for much of the game (see Warning Sign No. 4 above), and UAB seemingly grabbed every loose ball. Final score: UAB 60, ISU 59.
For what it's worth, 14 seed Kent State ranks fifth in offensive rebounding rate, 16 seed New Orleans ranks 17th, and fellow 14s New Mexico State (18th) and FGCU (32nd) are in the top 40. Northern Kentucky ranks 54th in defensive rebounding rate, while 13-seeds Vermont (69th), East Tennessee State (77th), and Bucknell (93rd) are all in the top 100.
6. The stupid bank-shot and/or contested threes. The culmination of their stupid shooting and your uncharacteristically awful shooting.
The culmination happens in the second half with six or eight minutes remaining. The lucky-as-hell shooter swaggers like he meant to do it.
Just turn the TV off at that point. Walk out of the arena. Abandon all hope. Fate has spoken.
7. The announcer marvels, “They just don’t know any better.”
This is usually in reference to a crazy-young opponent that is playing fearless, stupid basketball but can’t stop hitting ill-advised threes or taking defensive gambles that pay off. They are the wild guy in the fight that the basketball gods are looking out for.
This could also mean your opponent is in its second year of Division I ball and throwing alley-oops in ridiculous moments.
If you're trying to gauge the "don't know any better" factor, know that four teams are making their first NCAA tournament appearances in 2017: North Dakota, UC Davis, Jacksonville State, and Northern Kentucky. Northern Kentucky also ranks 292nd in Pomeroy's experience ratings.
A young first-timer that hits the glass with reckless abandon? Sorry, John Calipari and Kentucky. John Brannen's Norse are taking you down. They don't know any better.
8. This no-name team you overlooked is popping its jersey, and your guys are looking up at the scoreboard. By this point, it’s too late.
You should have quit when the bank-shot three went in.