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Jon Wertheim: Why do we root for March Madness underdogs?
2:10 | College Basketball
Jon Wertheim: Why do we root for March Madness underdogs?
Friday March 18th, 2016

DENVER — Can you imagine a roster blueprint less confidence-inspiring than this one? A Division II coach takes over a 13–18 Sun Belt program in April 2015, retains seven of its players and brings in 10 obscure newcomers in a matter of months—four of them D-I transfers, four of them from junior colleges, one from D-II, one a freshman. These are the misfit teams that go on to have forgettable seasons. These are not the teams that go on capture the hearts of the nation, for a few hours on the opening day of the NCAA tournament, in an 85–83, double-overtime upset of Purdue.

The only way it might work, new Little Rock coach Chris Beard figured, was if they accelerated the jelling process. So in August, two months before practice began, the team went off on a weekend retreat to Petit Jean Mountain, in central Arkansas, between the Ozark and Ouachita ranges. They packed into a cabin with bunk beds, put away their phones and listened to each other’s stories. They were from all over, from Louisiana, to Quebec, to Eastern Europe, but they realized, junior center Lis Shoshi said, that they had something in common: “Everyone had been through some tough things.”

They were misfits who had endured. Beard, a former Bob Knight assistant at Texas Tech, had bounced through D-II, junior college and even a season in the ABA before finally getting his D-I head coaching shot at Little Rock. Shoshi had transferred in from a juco but long before that, as a 4-year-old in 1999, had escaped Kosovo with his family during its civil war. “I think my teammates at first figured Kosovo was some paradise in Europe,” Shoshi said, “but once they heard my story, they understood.”

Senior guard Josh Hagins, out of Bossier City, La., was one of the few established returnees, but his career had hardly been a fairytale. He’d never appeared in a postseason, and he’d only started eight games as a junior. Hagins told them he was an emotional kid who let that stuff wear on him. “He felt like he hadn’t had the opportunity to show what he could do yet,” teammate Jermaine Ruttley, a transfer from Florida A&M, said of Hagins. Point guard Marcus Johnson Jr., who had just arrived from Hill (Junior) College, remembers Hagins saying one other thing, too: “He told everyone that this was not a rebuilding process. He said he believed we could win now, and he was willing to do anything to make that happen.”

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They were all intrigued by their new coach, even if he was a little crazy—the kind of guy who would later tell them to act “like street dogs, not pet-store dogs,” and who during the Sun Belt Conference tournament would break his right hand hitting a locker-room whiteboard. On the retreat, Beard brought the team over to one of Petit Jean Mountain’s ledges, and placed a long, wooden board over an open space between two rocks, with a steep drop-off below.

“He told us that if he walked across the board, he might stumble, but not if he kept his eyes straight ahead, stayed focused, and stayed the course,” Hagins said. “But we were like, ‘He’s not actually going to walk across this, is he?’ Because that could have been the most tragic story—your coach dies on your retreat! I was like, ‘Please, coach, don’t die on the retreat.’”

Beard pulled the board away from the ledge, to safe ground, before walking across it. The message was conveyed, and the first potential tragedy was averted.

*****

Sean M. Haffey/Getty

Here was that misfit team, on Thursday afternoon at the Pepsi Center, having avoided falling for longer than anyone could've imagined: Little Rock was 29–4, Sun Belt regular-season champs, Sun Belt tournament champs, and a No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament. But its time had finally come. Purdue, a No. 5 seed with a mammoth front line, was up 63–49 with five minutes left in a first-round game, and the Trojans weren’t offering any reasons to believe in a comeback.

Hagins, their leading scorer (at 12.8 points per game) coming into the tournament, had finished the first half with just two points on 1-of-5 shooting. Little Rock has a tradition of sprinting to the locker room at halftime, but Hagins instead did something that resembled a slow sleepwalk—and assistant coach Wes Flanigan approached him on the court and said, “JOSH! WAKE THE F--- UP!” (“It was like he was in his own world, just spaced out,” Flanigan said of Hagins. “I had to call his name 12 times before he even turned to me.”)

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Beard laid into Hagins at halftime, too—to a degree that Hagins worried his coach might break his other hand—although it didn’t immediately take effect. With five minutes left, down 14, Hagins had 10 points and the Trojans were still flat. The game was nearly decided; the odds of a Little Rock comeback were about the same as the odds of a team coming off a 13–18 season and adding 10 obscure newcomers had at winning its conference and making the NCAA tournament.

And yet, things began to change. Beard had the Trojans begin uncharacteristically pressing the plodding Boilermakers—“Always expect the unexpected,” Beard said of the defensive call—and Purdue started making mistakes. A Hagins steal with 4:11 left was converted into a Hagins three; another Hagins steal was converted into a jumper from junior guard Jalen Jackson that cut the lead to nine (at 65–56) with 3:05 left. A Johnson Jr. steal with 1:33 left turned into another Hagins three, and a turnover from Purdue senior center A.J. Hammons with 1:07 left led to a Shoshi layup that made it, improbably, 65–64 with 55 seconds to go.

The previous day, the 6'11"—but only 210-pound—Shoshi had confided to a reporter that when Purdue was announced as Little Rock’s first-round opponent, he was not exactly excited about the prospect of facing a front line of the 7'0" Hammons and 7'2" sophomore Isaac Haas. “To be honest with you,” Shoshi said, “I would have preferred someone else. But hey, we want to play against the best, and it’s March Madness, so anything can happen.” Anything including he and the Trojans holding Hammons (16 points) and Haas (7 points) in relative check with constant double- and triple-teams. And including Shoshi making a three—his lone trey of the game—with 21 seconds left that again cut Purdue’s lead to one, at 68–67. Two free throws from sophomore forward Vince Edwards put the Boilermakers up 70–67 with 17 seconds left, and set the stage for Hagins on the Trojans’ final offensive possession of regulation.

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When Hagins was asked on Wednesday, by this same reporter, what the secret was to him ranking as one of the nation’s most efficient isolation players, despite being only a sleight 6'1", he said he took inspiration from a Portland Trail Blazer. “I watched Damian Lillard when he first came [into the NBA],” Hagins said, and then started to demonstrate a move as he spoke. “He’s really good at that hesitation step-back, where you raise up your dribble, and then hop back and shoot it.”

Hagins had hit huge step-backs in road wins at San Diego State and Tulsa in November, and with his first-ever NCAA tournament game on the line, Hagins wanted to go back to his (borrowed) signature move. With the clock ticking down, Hagins got isolated on the left wing against Purdue point guard P.J. Thompson, but Thompson forced him back middle, into a shot with a much higher degree of difficulty than Hagins preferred. He did the hesitation dribble with the ball in his right hand, then literally hopped back right onto the edge of the halfcourt logo—and that was the spot where he launched the shot of this young NCAA tournament.

Hagins said it was “a little deep,” and that he was kind of sideways, and that he needed assistance from the Lord to have it go in, but regardless: It sent the game into extra time, during which he carried the Trojans through two overtimes, fully awake and fully engaged. Hagins had 21 points at the end of regulation, 25 at the end of the first OT, and by the end of the game, 31 points, six assists against zero turnovers, five steals and seven rebounds. Beard said that early on in what would become a 85–83 upset of Purdue, Little Rock’s coaches had searched in vain for sources of offense. Ultimately what saved them, Beard said, was “Josh Hagins [taking] over, like Superman.”

*****

The Trojans' most beloved tradition is their postgame celebration, which until Thursday (in what Beard called a “PG-13 version” with less physicality and tempered language, captured by TV) had remained a secret, deemed unsuitable for public consumption. “I grew up a basketball fan," Beard said, "and you know, you love it when Roy Williams comes in and North Carolina does some kind of dance or whatever, so my friends would ask me, ‘Man, you’ve won some big games: Why can’t your celebrations ever get on SportsCenter?' I'm like ‘Dude, no chance. Our celebrations are like dogfights.’”

They do a team prayer first, to honor the gods. But then Beard, as Johnson Jr. put it, “will start talking, and his face will start getting red, and he’ll get more and more excited, and then he’ll just go crazy, flying around the room and punching everybody—even today, he did it with his broken hand!” (“A bad decision, man,” Beard said, of leaving the cast off his hand for the entire game and the celebration. “My doctor back in Little Rock was pretty adamant about me wearing [the cast], but I just couldn’t draw plays on the board with it on.”)

To be clear, the Trojans players adore and egg on these celebrations; Shoshi shoved Beard to get things started on Thursday, and Montreal product Kemy Osse, who hit a big three in overtime, bear-hugged Beard from behind so players could attack him back. “He’s just wild,” Osse said of Beard. “That’s who he is.”

Aaron Ontiveroz/Getty

When the media was in the locker room later, a Trojans staff member began playing the sounds of dogs barking (a reference to Beard’s “street dogs” motto) on their stereo, and Shoshi announced that it was occasion for a different kind of celebration.

“Everyone!” he said, addressing the room. “It's Josh Hagins’s birthday.”

Indeed, when a beaming Hagins said, “I’ve been waiting 22 years for this,” he meant 22 years on the dot. After briefly joking that it was a decent birthday (“This is right up there with going to the bowling alley at nine”), Hagins stated it that it was the best birthday of his life. He had scored 31 points, including that absurd stepback, powered the most thrilling upset of the NCAA tournament’s opening day, and introduced himself and Little Rock’s banded-together misfits to the nation in the most entertaining way imaginable. It warranted a bigger party, but with Iowa State and a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line Saturday, Hagins was keeping his plans tame—and staying the course.

He said he had discovered the pleasures of cinnamon ice cream on this trip to Denver, eaten it on Tuesday and Wednesday, and planned to get it a third time on Thursday night. He had to stick with anything that might have contributed to him morphing from an anonymous, undecorated guard to the most famous shot-maker of March Madness in 2016, and cinnamon ice cream was possibly one of those things.

“If you’ve never had it,” Hagins said, “it’s a fantastic flavor.”

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