This was originally a script for a video that I put on YouTube, but I couldn’t really make it work without using CBS footage, so it was taken down immediately, thus squandering an entire day’s work, but I’m happy with my script and I’ll just share it here.
One game in this year’s NCAA Basketball tournament got to me, and it’s the one that got to everyone else, and I’m just fascinated by how – and why – it happened.
The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament has featured a 64-team bracket since 1985, adding a play-in round in 2001 and then another three in 2011. This means we’ve had four sixteen-versus-one matchup in each of the past 33 tournaments, and until March Sixteenth of 2018, the one-seed had been undefeated. The University of Maryland – Baltimore County defeated Virginia, and defeated them rather handily, 74-54. A blowout, and an easy one at that, UMBC’s first ever NCAA Tournament victory, in only their second ever appearance, and the only instance of a sixteen seed defeating a one seed in Division I basketball since Harvard defeated Stanford in the 1998 Women’s Basketball Tournament.
I only watched the second half of this game, but it struck me how… uh… noncompetitive it was. UMBC was in control the entire time. The whole second half, it seemed, I was expecting the Yahoos to come back, to seize control. In a short clip produced by ESPN in 2008 on that Harvard win, one of the Crimson’s players refers to a feeling of waiting for the “other shoe to drop,” for Stanford to come back and dominate the way the seed would indicate. I was waiting for this on Friday night, but it just never happened. It was tied at half, but that’d happened before – Penn had a lead on Kansas the day before with three minutes left in the first half before the Jayhawks came back and won pretty handily. Even when UMBC came out hot, and took a fourteen point lead with sixteen minutes left, it’d only take one run for Virginia to get back into it, and that just never came.
And why didn’t it come?
This is what keeps bugging me, the day after this upset, why didn’t Virginia have what it took to come back? Virginia was the toughest defensive team in college basketball – they held Clemson, a five-seed, to thirty six points in the regular season – but UMBC scored more points against them than anyone else, more than the West Virginia and Virginia Tech that scored the only two victories over the Cavs during the year, more than the 2-seed Tobacco road schools, more than anybody. The last team to score 74 or more points against Tony Bennett’s Virginia team in regulation was North Carolina, in a UVA win on February 27th of 2016. They’d stopped everybody from scoring, even when they couldn’t do it themselves, what was different against UMBC?
Well… the easy number to look at is 67.9 percent, the Retrievers’ field goal percentage in the second half. That’s other-worldly. They were seven-of-thirteen from behind the arc in the second half, meanwhile Virginia was three-of-nine, unable to make up the difference with what seemed like their only feasible weapon.
As the UMBC lead increased, the Cavaliers started chucking up more threes. Ty Jerome took their first three of the second half at the twelve minute mark, when UMBC already had a fourteen point lead. Virginia couldn’t get one to fall until there were fewer than ten minutes left, down by sixteen. They weren’t given good looks, either, and several of those shots were rushed, a necessity when the deficit had grown so deeply. When it came time for Virginia to adapt offensively, they couldn’t.
Virginia’s defense thrives on control, and they lost it immediately as the second half began. I think the most crucial sequence of this upset was these two:
Virginia came right out of a timeout, scored an easy basket to cut the lead to five, and should’ve taken over defensively from there.
Instead, Lyles responded.
Another crucial sequence followed, when Arkel Lamar grabbed a contested offensive rebound – beating Virginia at what they do west – and found Joe Sherburne, who hit a three. Virginia would never be that close again.
When Penn, who I still feel was a little underseeded, took an 8 point lead over Kansas the previous day, the Jayhawks adapted. They’d put up jump shot after jump shot, hoping for the rangey shooting that’d carried them in a number of Big XII games to carry them past Penn. But for Kansas in the first ten minutes, the threes wouldn’t fall. Coach Self had to adapt, putting in injured center Udoka Azubuike to aid with poor inside defense and rebounding, and senior point guard Devonte Graham stopped putting up treys and started driving. The adaptation worked, Kansas regained a lead in the first half, and never left that gameplan. Once Kansas’ shooters could match Penn’s shooters, that threat was neutralized, and once Penn lost the ability to beat Kansas inside, they had no way to come back.
Virginia, I feel, couldn’t adapt in this way for two reasons. For one, where Kansas used Azubuike only in that emergency case, Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter – a freshman and sixth man of the year in the ACC – was injured and missed the entire game. Without him, and with their sophomore starter Kyle Guy partially limited in lateral mobility by a knee injury. Tony Bennett’s “Pack Line” defense stresses good perimeter defense by guards, and losing strength in that respect may have opened UMBC up to open threes.
Oddly enough, that Stanford Women’s team I was talking about earlier? They also had multiple injured players right where they needed them most. Perhaps that’s part of the necessary footage.
And perhaps the most important thing about that was the fact that UMBC hit most of their open looks – Lowly-seeded teams normally just don’t shoot that well from three-point range, and the ones that do, like Middle Tennessee State against Michigan State in 2016, tend to get the win. With their biggest defensive strength neutralized, there was no way for Virginia to adapt. Good teams must adapt, or else they’ll be exposed.
I was looking up what Virginia fans thought coming into this game and I found a post from Streaking The Lawn, SB Nation’s Virginia site, which proved apocryphal:
UMBC does one thing well. They can shoot the rock. If you’re only going to be good at one thing, that’s the one to be good at. Good shooting can keep you in games. But the Hoos are one of the best in the nation at defending the 3 point line. And the size of the Cavalier wings means open shots are going to be hard to come by for the Retreivers.
They did indeed shoot the rock, and Virginia wasn’t prepared defensively. Those two straight three-pointers in the second half furthered a rift, which required Virginia to adapt offensively.
Missing a 9-point-per game scorer damaged Virginia’s offense. Having their best scorer in a knee brace probably damaged Virginia’s offense. But needing to run an up-tempo offense to get back into the game killed Virginia. I think, partially, they just didn’t know how to, because they’d never needed to, this was the first game all season during which they’d been unable to control the scoring and tempo. When they lost control, they didn’t have a way to get it back.
In the majority of 16-1, 15-2, 14-3 scares, the higher seeded team can reach into the metaphorical toolset of adaptability, replace an ineffective or broken tool with one that works, and get the job done. Kansas escaped Holy Cross in 2002 when Jeff Boschee and Keith Langford adapted to replace the scoring output of an injured Kirk Hinrich. Georgetown beat Princeton in 1989 because Alonzo Mourning stepped out of his normal defensive range and blocked a long Princeton jump shot to seal the win. Syracuse’s James Southerland got hot shooting and rebounding in time to save a near-fall to UNC Asheville in 2012.
Sixteenth seeds normally can’t adapt back, and that’s why they tend to lose. Virginia couldn’t force UMBC to adapt, so they never had to, and they ended up victorious. Virginia lost this game because they never got to play their game, then couldn’t find a way to play the one they needed.
This game was historical because it was the first in the men’s tournament, but it’ll be memorable because of how competitive it wasn’t.