PITTSBURGH — Radford Coach Mike Jones didn’t see much point not addressing the elephant he knew was going to accompany his basketball team from Dayton, Ohio, to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. So he got right to it in the locker room inside UD Arena.
“No number 16 seed has ever beaten a number one seed in the NCAA tournament,” he told his players after they had beaten LIU Brooklyn, 71-61, to advance to a first-round game against Villanova here Thursday. “You’ve now earned the opportunity to make history.”
So much for the elephant.
“We all know about it,” said Carlik Jones, the redshirt freshman point guard whose buzzer-beating three-point shot in the Big South Conference championship game March 4 beat Liberty and sent Radford to Dayton as a co-number 16 seed to face the Blackbirds. “We understand how good Villanova is. But we’re not afraid of it.” He smiled. “It would be fun to make history.”
This already has been a historic season at Radford. The win over LIU was the Highlanders’ 23rd, a program record, in the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009.
Just comparing résumés with top-seeded Villanova is a little bit frightening.
When junior forward Ed Polite Jr. and Carlik Jones were asked about the team’s biggest nonconference wins, Polite came up with James Madison, Jones with East Carolina. Villanova has beaten Tennessee and Gonzaga and also swept Xavier — another No. 1 seed — in Big East play.
Villanova last played Saturday in the Big East championship game. The Highlanders played Tuesday, got on a plane and arrived at their downtown hotel at about 2:30 Wednesday morning.
When Jones and Polite were introduced in the interview room, the moderator called Polite “Pol-eety.” Polite grinned and said nothing, too polite to tell him it is pronounced as the opposite of rude.
While Villanova Coach Jay Wright was going through his (lengthy) media paces, his players hung out in a wide, comfortable locker room with lockers for about 25 and ample space in the walk-in area. The Radford players squeezed into a locker room about the same size as Villanova’s walk-in area — no exaggeration.
High-seeding hath its privileges.
Radford senior center Randy Phillips, who is 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, sat on a chair in the middle of the room rather than in front of his locker in the corner.
“You think I can get in there?” he asked. “No way. Look at the size of that space.”
Like his teammates, Phillips was happy that Mike Jones had allowed the players to sleep until 11 a.m.
“It was okay to play last night,” he said. “Gave us a chance to get our juices flowing again after we hadn’t played for more than a week. Now we have to keep going. We’re in win-or-go-home territory.”
The subject of the previous 132 NCAA tournament games involving a No. 1 seed against a 16 came up.
“Don’t know anything about it,” Phillips insisted. “All I know about is us versus them.”
Informed that Jones had said he had talked to the team about what they were facing, Phillips grinned. “Yeah, okay, we all know,” he said. “But when we walk out there, they’re just another team. A very good team, but we’ve scouted ’em. We know what they’re going to try to do, and we aren’t intimidated.”
Phillips is a communications major who wants to get into journalism. If charm is part of the criteria, he will do just fine.
Polite leads the team in scoring (13.5 points per game) and rebounding (7.9), but the player who has received the most attention since the victory over Liberty is Jones, who was recruited two years ago out of Cincinnati but couldn’t play last season because he hadn’t qualified academically.
At Radford, which is about nine miles south of Virginia Tech on Interstate 81, Jones’s three-pointer always will be known simply as “The Shot.” Like every basketball player alive, he had always dreamed about a moment like that one.
“When it went in, I just thought about guys I’d seen make a shot like that in the past,” he said with a wide smile. “All I remembered was how they started running until their teammates tackled them. So I started running, and they tackled me.”
Mike Jones was an assistant at Virginia Commonwealth when the Rams made their run from Dayton as a No. 11 seed to the Final Four. “Have I told them about that?” he said, laughing. “I’ve told them about it for seven years. First six years it didn’t seem to work. This year, maybe it’s started to get through.”
Jones was also an assistant coach at Georgia when, 10 years ago Wednesday, a tornado hit the Georgia Dome during the Southeastern Conference quarterfinals. Georgia had finished the season tied for the worst record in the SEC and had to upset Mississippi to get to a quarterfinal matchup against Kentucky.
That game was postponed until Saturday morning and moved to Georgia Tech. Georgia beat Kentucky, then beat Mississippi State later that day and won the championship against Arkansas on Sunday. Three wins in 30 hours to get into the NCAA tournament.
So Jones knows something about miracles.
“We don’t need a miracle, though,” Phillips said. “We need to play really well, though, our best game of the season. I’ve seen them on TV. They’re very good. The point guard [Jalen Brunson] is very good. So is [Mikal] Bridges. But we think we’re good, too.”
He smiled. “In fact, I know we’re good.”
Feeling confident in a tiny locker room sitting among your teammates before practice isn’t that difficult. Feeling that way lining up against future NBA players in a sold-out, 19,000-seat arena is another thing entirely.
The best way to define the feeling of taking the court as a No. 16 seed against a No. 1 came 20 years ago from Navy center Sitapha Savane after his team lost to North Carolina, 88-52.
“I walked to the jump circle, saw Antawn Jamison standing there,” he said. “I didn’t know whether to shake his hand or ask for his autograph.”
Phillips isn’t likely to ask Omari Spellman for his autograph before the ball goes up Thursday. Neither he nor his teammates appeared nervous or scared Wednesday.
As their coach was wrapping up his news conference, the entire team burst into the back of the interview room, cheering him on. Trying not to laugh, Jones said: “Is this legal? This can’t be legal, right?”
A few minutes later, he said: “Well, I told them to enjoy the ride. Guess they listened.”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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