A day later, it’s still hard to fathom UMBC’s upset of No. 1 Virginia
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The rumblings were there before March Madness kicked off — that this could be the year for a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Not pinpointing Maryland-Baltimore County to stun top overall seed Virginia , and certainly not by 20 points. But the win by the Retrievers — who needed a buzzer-beater to upset Vermont in the America East Tournament — highlighted changes in college hoops that have shrunk the mythical gap between 16s and 1s. It also shows what can happen in a single game when everything falls into place for the right underdog.
“Really, anybody can beat anybody and if you don’t come to play you’re going to get beat,” Virginia’s Ty Jerome said.
That may be truer now than ever before, even though it took 136 games for the 16-over-1 upset to happen in the men’s tournament, 20 years after Harvard toppled Stanford in the opening round of the women’s tournament.
Virginia relied more on teamwork than overwhelming talent to work its way toward becoming the unanimous No. 1 team in the final AP Top 25 before the tournament. But even top seeds with multiple NBA prospects are more vulnerable than ever.
St. John’s had dropped 11 games in a row before beating No. 9 Duke in February, a team now seeded second in what many consider the most leaded bracket of the NCAA Tournament, the Midwest. Duke’s loss highlighted the risk of leaning so heavily on freshmen, even those who put up strong offensive outings. Four days after beating Duke, St. John’s followed up by beating Villanova — a No. 1 seed powerhouse that may be even more talented now than its 2016 championship team.
It’s more than just the one-and-done era that has put top seeds at higher risk.
The explosion of the transfer market has spread out talent like never before — leaving overlooked players like UMBC’s Jairus Lyles at mid- and low-majors across the country.
Lyles broke out with a nearly flawless second half against Virginia, where he scored 23 of his 28 points and looked the part of a player who should’ve been playing for a 1, not a 16. He left VCU after playing just 22 games as a freshman, then transferred to Robert Morris, where he never played, before deciding to move closer to home with UMBC. He averages 20.4 points a game for the Retrievers.
“We had the confidence coming into the game. I don’t think there was any point in the game that we thought we couldn’t play with them. We knew we could play with them before the game,” Lyles said.
Still, Virginia was the top overall seed for a reason, entering the tournament at 31-2 and with regular season and tournament titles in the ACC, arguably the best league in America.
Virginia suffered a blow last week when freshman De’Andre Hunter, the ACC’s sixth man of the year, broke his wrist and was lost for the season. It wasn’t quite as big as when that 1998 Stanford team lost starters Vanessa Nygaard and Kristin Folkl to knee injuries the week before the Crimson came to town. But the last thing any team with serious national title aspirations needs is a disruption to their chemistry that late in the season.
“We had a remarkable year. But we also knew our margin for error wasn’t huge,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.
Bennett has also built the Cavaliers into a national power by using a low tempo, defensive-minded approach that has worked extremely well for years. But it also put the team at a disadvantage once Lyles and the Retrievers got hot from beyond the arc early in the second half, spreading out the Cavaliers’ vaunted defense and forcing a flummoxed Virginia to start forcing 3s of their own.
The added emphasis on 3-point shooting in recent years has also made the notion of a No. 16 seed pulling off the once-unthinkable more realistic.
In 2016, 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee shot 11 of 19 on 3s to knock off Michigan State, the top No. 2 seed in that year’s tournament.
But even though it had been coming for years, it was still stunning to see a 16 seed make history.
“I kept thinking it (was) April Fool’s Day. I didn’t know what was going on,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.