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NCAA Tournament 2017: Mount St. Mary’s wants you to know it belongs

The Mountaineers are defined by hustle and confidence.

NCAA Basketball: Mount St. Mary's at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

DAYTON — Mount St. Mary’s is the anti-Kentucky, the anti-Kansas, and the anti-Duke. The bluebloods are powerful enough to own a section of the country like Tobacco Road, but the Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers come from the relative obscurity in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

That stark difference is shown on the backs of the Mountaineers’ practice jerseys. While the top programs in the country typically put a player’s name on the back, every Mountaineer has the word “Mayhem” on his upper third.

Jamion Christian, the 33 year-old head coach in his fifth season at the helm, learned to appreciate the catchphrase while working under Shaka Smart at VCU.

“Practice with us is always full of enthusiasm and energy,” he said.

His practice preceding the First Four in Dayton embodied this philosophy. It started with the loudest passing drill imaginable as players screamed their target’s name until he received the ball. If a player wasn’t passing, he was clapping for his teammates.

Practice ended with “Hustle Drill.” Charge. Loose Ball. Out of bounds save. Loose Ball. They created a noise that showcased to the fans at UD Arena what mayhem is all about.

“We play loose, play free, play crazy,” sophomore guard Elijah Long said. He calls it “composed chaos.”

Long, the Mountaineers’ leading scorer and NEC Tournament MVP, fuels the Mountaineers’ fire alongside Junior Robinson, the shortest player in college basketball at 5’5.

“We go crazy turnovers, pressing 24/7,” Long said. “We’ve played at Iowa State, at West Virginia. I think this stage is not going to surprise us.”

Mount St. Mary’s beat the New Orleans Privateers 67-66 on Tuesday night in Dayton. Robinson powered the Mountaineers with 23 points and three assists in 40 minutes. Long conceded most of his playmaking responsibility to Robinson, who controlled the game’s tempo.

“When the ball wasn’t going in, I just knew Junior was the one,” Long said. “When one man is down, another has to step up and take the position. And I’m ok with that.”

“People who follow Mount basketball have seen that kind of team play game in, game out,” Christian added. “But they always show me -- what you guys saw there tonight was just how we've played since December. We've just always had great poise, great confidence.”

The Mountaineers expected to make the tournament, just like a UCLA or a UNC.

“We lost a year ago in our tournament, and the guys got to work immediately,” Christian said. “A week later, these guys were right back in the gym, spending a lot of time in there and trying to get better. They wanted to be here. They naturally are competitors.”

A 76-61 win over Saint Francis to win the NEC Championship last week secured a spot that they felt has long been theirs.

“We have to lock into ourselves and be ourselves to win this tournament,” Christian said. “You can run a program based off of love and belief.”

It’s difficult to imagine a head coach from the ACC making such a statement. You can’t argue that Mount St. Mary’s is a powerhouse program like Villanova, who they will face Thursday, or Wisconsin, Virginia, and Duke looming down the line.

“I feel like me and Eli are the best backcourt, so it's going to be a fun game,” Robinson said.

A 16 seed has never beaten a 1 seed, let alone the top overall team in the tournament. But it is impossible to convince the Mountaineers that they do not belong.

“We're living a dream right now,” Robinson said. “And in order to keep that dream going, we've got to go out and compete against the best team that's overall No. 1.”