Remember Marshall? The freewheeling No. 13 seed that beat Wichita State? Whose coach, Dan D’Antoni, roams the sidelines rocking a blazer over a long-sleeve-T-shirt bearing the school’s logo? Who went on that pro-analytics rant in 2016 that went viral anew on Friday? Whose star guard, Jon Elmore, launched bombs from one of the bracket’s other regions? For almost an entire afternoon the Thundering Herd owned one of the NCAA tournament’s busiest days, the lone real source of intrigue in a humdrum slate of comfortably decided margins and chalky outcomes. By the time midnight struck the East coast, Marshall’s explosion onto the national scene felt more like a distant crackle.
This, of course, was the second-most improbable thing that UMBC did on Friday. Or maybe the 16th, or the 64th, or the 312th, because it took a lot of improbable things to make the kind of history that the Retrievers did when they became the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in men’s NCAA tournament history. Things like so stymying Virginia, the No. 1 seed in the entire tournament, that it didn’t record an assist in the game’s first half. Or making 50% of their three-pointers against what had been not just the stingiest defense in the country but the stingiest one measured in the 17-season analytics era. Or putting up 53 points in a half against that same D, which had held a dozen opponents to 40-something points or fewer in entire games. Or having a fifth-year double-transfer score 28 points and look like the player on the floor who would most belong spending his Januarys and Februarys in the ACC.
If you came here hoping for some sense to be made of this, you came to the wrong place. That is, insofar as such a place even exists. Wins like the Retrievers’ 74–54 beatdown of the Cavaliers—and that’s what it was—do not defy analysis so much as make it beside the point. You can say that UMBC got hot from outside, that Virginia seemed tight, that the glacially deliberate Hoos were not built for quick comebacks, and so on. But, Cavaliers loyalists (and bettors) aside, a game such as Friday’s is best viewed through an appreciative lens, not an analytical one. Why bother making sense of what you can instead enjoy? The No. 1 team in the country, which had just won the regular season and tournament championships in the sport’s premier league, got ran off the court by a team that had lost to Albany by 44 points, from a school whose acronym had to be explained repeatedly by the TNT announce team. For the record, it’s the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. A lot of folks in Charlottesville will never forget it.
The Retrievers shot their way into history armed with all the charms needed to be a March darling. For one, there’s that cuddly nickname and corresponding mascot, which is embodied on the school’s campus by a very good statue of a very good boy. There is the story of their coach, Ryan Odom, winning this historic game in Charlotte as a North Carolina native whose father coached at Wake Forest and who himself served as interim coach at Charlotte and then head coach an hour away at Division II Lenoir–Rhyne until UMBC hired him two years ago. There was the school’s Twitter account, whose tone of millennial cheekiness (about hot dogs, or the school’s website crashing, or those ignorant of the school’s existence) paired perfectly with the upending being done by its basketball team. There is the fact that the team’s star, Jairus Lyles, a VCU transfer by way of Robert Morris whose shots seemed to be tractor-beamed through the net throughout the second half, is the son of two Virginia alumni. On one brilliant Friday night the basketball gods stirred it into a cocktail some observers were unsure they would ever taste—fatal for Virginia, intoxicatingly enthralling for audiences.
It was also a display of one of this tournament’s greatest strengths: its seemingly endless resource of wells to tap. Even after a relatively uneventful day, when no one would be blamed for having moved on from hoops to enjoy their Friday night elsewhere, something new and unforeseen can emerge to cast the proceedings in a new light, to give the event an unbridled jolt. We watch this tournament in hopes of seeing such a thing, even if so many of them look something like ones we have seen before it. And then, on a night like Friday, it treats us to something we had not seen at all, in a way no one would have envisioned it.
If it’s any solace to Marshall—which is still altogether deserving of its Cinderella spotlight—it was not alone in being cast into the shadows by UMBC. Nevada ate away a 14-point deficit before beating Texas in overtime; Kansas State handled Creighton without the services of its best player, Dean Wade; Butler upset Arkansas; ditto Syracuse to TCU; Bucknell and the College of Charleston nearly shocked Michigan State and Auburn, respectively, before bowing out by a combined seven points. (Charleston’s loss, marked by an apparent uncalled foul on a missed game-tying three attempt, must especially sting.) But none could even make the noise of the Thundering Herd, let alone match the howling inspired by the Retrievers.
The day’s biggest non-upset news was a different kind of loss. Purdue, the No. 2 seed in the East Regional, cruised past Cal State Fullerton in its opening game, only for its Final Four hopes to suffer a major blow after the final buzzer, when 7’ 2” center Isaac Haas was ruled out for the remainder of the tournament due to a fractured elbow. It’s the kind of March disappointment with which Boilermakers fans are all too familiar. It’s also the kind that will now force a national title contender to remake itself on the fly, with a short turnaround, when the stakes are highest.
Purdue will debut its new self on Sunday against a familiar opponent in Butler, a foe from down the road whom the old-look Boilermakers beat by 15 in December. That will be the opener of an eight-game schedule that seems primed for more liveliness than most of Friday’s. Michigan State vs. Syracuse will pit two Hall of Fame coaches against one another, one armed with a pair of lottery picks and the other with a 2–3 zone that can give anyone headaches. North Carolina’s elite rebounding will be tested by Texas A&M’s uncommon size, while Nevada’s position-less, NBA-influenced offense will be tested by Cincinnati and the best defense remaining in the bracket. And Marshall will meet in-state big brother West Virginia, with the Herd’s scorching-tempo offense needing to brave the Mountaineers’ vaunted all-out pressure.
Then there is UMBC vs. Kansas State, an odd matchup of an altogether new variety, the first ever between a No. 16 seed and a No. 9. It is scheduled to begin as the day’s sixth game, likely sometime around 8 p.m. ET. Whatever the rest of this opening weekend may have in store, the Retrievers await on its closing night, and with them another opportunity to seize March’s stage.