GREENVILLE, S.C.—Texas Southern and Troy played their ways into the NCAA Tournament by winning their respective conference tournaments. Like so many mid-majors, the two were rewarded by playing higher-seeded, heavily favored programs. And in this case, those programs were the bluest of bloods in No.1 seed North Carolina an No. 2 seed Duke, respectively.
It had been a long time since the NCAA Tournament made an appearance in Greenville, S.C. It has been 15 years since Duke arrived as the No. 1 seed to take on No. 16 seed Winthrop, with No. 2 seed Alabama battling No. 15 seed Florida Atlantic in the 2002 Tournament.
Back then, the lower-seeded programs were headed up by a couple of household names in former UNLV standout Sidney Green (FAU) and Gregg Marshall (Winthrop).
Both the Owls and Eagles took their lumps on the opening day of the tournament that year, with Winthrop falling 84-37 to the top-seeded Blue Devils and the Owls losing to the second-seeded Crimson Tide, 86-78.
Fast forward 15 years.
Mike Davis, who led the 2002 Indiana Hoosiers to the national title game, found himself on the sidelines as the head coach of Texas Southern.
Davis has been at the Houston-based school for five seasons, posting a 77-59 record. He’s set a standard with the Tigers in the SWAC, winning five conference titles and making the NCAA Tournament three times.
The Tigers faced six teams from power conferences during the regular- season, including NCAA Tournament participants Cincinnati, Baylor, Arizona and Louisville. But little could prepare them for the onslaught delivered by the Tar Heels.
The Tigers played well early, and even excited the Greenville crowd with high-wire basketball, including a Demontre Jefferson steal and an emphatic slam from center Marvin Jones. But things inevitably turned south as North Carolina took a 52-27 half time lead.
With about five minutes remaining in the game, a Tony Bradley layup in the paint gave the Tar Heels a 37-point lead, and there was a look of dejection on the face of Tigers’ senior guard Tyree Bynum, who was seeing the final action of his career. Bynum received the in-bounds pass just in front of the boisterous Carolina pep band, which seem to only magnify the frustration of the moment for himself and the Tigers.
It was the unglamorous side of a mid-major program in the NCAA Tournament. The No. 1 and No. 16 game of the NCAA Tournament often offers a glimpse at the ugly side of the NCAA Tournament—the one we don’t talk about as college basketball fans. For all the upsets, blowouts are far more likely, especially in the No. 1/16 matchups.
I found myself feeling a little sorry for Texas Southern, as well as its band and coaches. It’s the cruel twist of the NCAA Tournament’s One Shining Moment. For as big of a moment as it is to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, there is the dejection and frustration worn by players like Bynum during and after the game.
While most of us know the result, the players still believe in themselves and still give it their all to just compete, and when it becomes evident on the scoreboard and as the margin widens, the frustration seems to only compound.
At one point, Davis’ expression in the final minutes said it all, looking as if he wished the clock didn’t have to stop the remainder of the game in order to get the proceedings over with as quickly as possible. Despite the best efforts of the Tigers, the score ended in inevitable fashion, with a 103-67 win for the No. 1 Tar Heels.
It was the life of a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Troy had much the same experience in the first game of the night session.
The Trojans had a good year in the Sun Belt Conference, and were rewarded with a No. 15 seed and an opening matchup with No. 2 Duke. Troy qualified for just its second NCAA Tournament in school history, and first since 2003.
The Trojans, for a while, looked like they might make things tough for the Blue Devils, just as Lehigh and Mercer had done in recent seasons.
Wesley Person and Jordan Varnardo helped keep the Trojans in the game for most of the opening frame, with the margin remaining at 10-12 points for a majority of the half. Duke would eventually carry a 52-38 lead into the locker room.
Troy’s chances to stay in the game in the second half took a major blow, as the Trojans were only able to record three field goals in a little over a seven minute span, allowing Duke to increase its lead even more. Duke hit 13 triples for the game, while the Trojans, who connected on 14 in the Sun Belt quarterfinal win over Georgia Southern, managed just five against Duke. The Blue Devils escaped with a relatively easy 87-65 win.
For Texas Southern and Troy, the NCAA Tournament can be a cruel way to end the season. But it can also provide a sense of accomplishment.
It’s clear that Mike Davis has Texas Southern on the right path to be a stalwart atop the SWAC, and I would expect the Tigers will see their share of NCAA Tournament appearances as long as he is the head coach.
Troy is a program not accustomed to success on the hardwood. But like Davis changed the fortunes at Texas Southern, Cunningham is changing how basketball is perceived at the school, and in the football-crazed state of Alabama.
Still, it was a job well done by both programs. Sometimes the rewards of the NCAA Tournament aren’t actually realized until later in life, when these players have memories to share with their families and children of their own to look back on, telling of how they played against some of college basketball’s finest competition on its biggest stage.