They have highbrow names such as “Duke,” “Syracuse,” “Georgetown,” “Michigan State” and “Arizona.” Their forlorn fraternity had eight members, strewn across the past 37 college basketball seasons, before this offbeat Indiana March Madness. They included teams from South Carolina, Iowa State and Missouri, teams that spent golden seasons building hopes and then a two-hour period in March having the hopes go kaput.
They’re the No. 2 seeds who have gone toppled by No. 15 seeds in the 36 NCAA men’s tournaments since the field widened to 64 in 1985, and their ranks reached nine Friday in West Lafayette, Ind. Ohio State joined them, and that’s how it goes, and that’s a reality beloved by just about everyone except the superb team just ousted.
Almost by definition, they lose to the Lilliputian. So here goes the list as of now: Richmond over Syracuse in 1991, Santa Clara (with Steve Nash!) over Arizona in 1993, Coppin State (with Coach Fang Mitchell!) over South Carolina in 1997, Hampton over Iowa State in 2001, Lehigh over Duke in 2012, Norfolk State over Missouri in 2012, Florida Gulf Coast over Georgetown in 2013 and Middle Tennessee over Michigan State in 2016.
To those, add Oral Roberts, whose two leading scorers looked like everybody’s leading scorers with 59 combined points Friday in the 75-72 overtime upset of Ohio State. The outcome set off some giddiness and a locker room the Golden Eagles’ Kevin Obanor described as “a lot of water being thrown.”
On the other side of that equation in this mad land, it’s time to justify an excellent season even if maybe one shouldn’t have to justify an excellent season, except that that’s how we do things around here in North America. Ohio State barely just got finished playing a 91-88 overtime donnybrook of a Big Ten tournament final Sunday against Illinois. It’s barely a month from playing a game that was more a work of art, a 92-87 loss to Michigan. It held its own in a league that bruised people trying to hold their own.
“Anytime you’re a number two seed,” Ohio State Coach Chris Holtmann said, “that kind of speaks for itself.”
Anytime you’re a No. 2 seed and you lose, that kind of speaks for capital-M Madness.
It’s the kind of thing that might leave the far-flung Americans sitting in living rooms and asking questions like, Who the hell is Oral Roberts? Well, bud, that’s a Tulsa-based school founded in 1963 by, well, Oral Roberts (1918-2009), one of the first televangelists. It does have a basketball heritage, yes it does.
In the 1974 NCAA tournament most famous for a loud and historic national semifinal, Oral Roberts pulled up one held breath from the Final Four. In the tournament when North Carolina State and David Thompson, arguably the greatest college player ever, dethroned UCLA and Bill Walton, arguably the greatest college player ever, Oral Roberts shone in a set of games that read like a series of goose bumps. It bounced Syracuse, three years B.B. (before Boeheim), 86-82 in overtime. It surpassed Louisville, in the third of Denny Crum’s 30 seasons, 96-93. And it played an Elite Eight game back before anyone called it the Elite Eight, in which it co-wrote a 93-90 overtime jewel with Kansas, in the 10th of Ted Owens’s 20 seasons.
How about a retroactive wow for that run, kids?
Now, all these years later, it just had a season in which it ran fourth in the Summit League and gained the attention mostly of only next of kin. It lost to some tiptop teams early — Missouri, Oklahoma State, Wichita State, Oklahoma — but often played them commendably. It lost later to North Dakota, Kansas City, North Dakota State, South Dakota State and South Dakota, and clearly none of that counts as embarrassing.
Then it won the Summit League tournament with the kind of frenzied plays that punctuate March with exclamation points, at the end of a 90-88 semifinal against No. 1 seed South Dakota State and a 75-72 final against No. 3 seed North Dakota State.
Then came Ohio State, which was about to prove again how months of toil and good moments could halt in one afternoon all the bracket freaks won’t forget for decades to come. Ohio State would be the one to show that a towering team with Duane Washington Jr. can run into a team with the nation’s leading scorer, in this case Max Abmas, and he can score 29 points with 5-for-10 shooting from downtown yet have that abetted by the fact that Obanor would score 30 with 5-for-12 shooting from downtown, all while Ohio State found downtown deserted at 5-for-23 shooting.
“I had no illusions,” Holtmann said, “that this was going to be, by any stretch, anything other than a really challenging game, and it obviously was that from the very jump. Ultimately, too many missed shots, too many missed free throws, but give them credit for making the plays. Congratulations to them for moving on.”
Nobody can explain it all that much, which is how everyone likes it, but now No. 15 seed Oral Roberts does move on to play No. 7 seed Florida, and you have Oral Roberts Coach Paul Mills insisting the celebration should be brief by saying with quite some wisdom, “If you spend all your time looking back at your marriage-day videos, you’re probably not going to have a very good marriage.”
One whoosh of a game with an overtime attached, and now you have the Buckeyes gone abruptly, and you have Obanor saying, “It just feels good to leave something better than you found it, and, “We just have a lot of dogs on the team; we’re a very gritty team.”
They do have dogs, the dogs of March: underdogs.