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Feinstein: UMBC, Loyola Made 2018 Tournament What It Was

There's plenty to dislike about college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, John Feinstein wrote, but there's also plenty to love

John Feinstein
April 10, 2018 - 10:28 am

I have said it before, I will say it again: the NCAA Tournament is such a uniquely dramatic event that even the NCAA and its TV "partners" can’t ruin it.

There were two wonderful stories in this year’s tournament: UMBC’s night of impossible glory and Loyola-Chicago’s remarkable run to the Final Four. There were other spectacular finishes, notably Michigan’s buzzer beater that allowed it to beat Houston in the second round and, ultimately, reach the championship game.

UMBC, as I’ve written here before, occupies a special place in my hoops heart because I’ve done the Retrievers’ home games on television the last two seasons. I watched the team evolve under Ryan Odom from a seven-win wreck in 2016 to what it became this season: a team good enough to shock a very good Vermont team in the America East title game—at Vermont—and then go on to pull the most stunning upset in the history of the tournament, beating the top-seed Virginia, 74-54, in the first round.       
The Retrievers became not only the first 16-seed to beat a 1-seed after 135 straight losses, but also the team that will be the battle cry for all future 16-seeds: “We can be UMBC!”
Of course, the world being what it is, there were people claiming that N.C State over Houston or Villanova over Georgetown or Duke over UNLV were somehow comparable or more remarkable.
Not even close. All those games involved big-time programs with massive budgets who appear on TV more often than, as Pete Gillen once put it, Leave it to Beaver.
UMBC came out of a one-bid league and had played in exactly one NCAA Tournament game in school history—a one-sided loss to Georgetown in 2009.
The stories inside the story made UMBC even more fun: Jairus Lyles, the star guard who hit the shot to beat Vermont, had transferred twice before finding a home at UMBC. He could have left a year earlier and been a graduate-transfer at a big-time program but opted to stay. When I wrote a Washington Post column on him in February, Lyles told me he stayed “because I thought I had a chance to leave a mark here. It was about legacy and finishing what we started last year.”
He certainly did that.
The person who convinced Lyles to stay wasn’t Odom; it was school president Freeman Wrabowski, a remarkable man, who marched with Martin Luther King as a 12-year-old (and went to jail) and has engineered a remarkable renaissance academically at UMBC.
There was also K.J. Maura, the tiny point guard (5-6, 135 pounds—maybe) who made opponents crazy. Maura is from Puerto Rico and his family was without water and power for more than two months after Hurricane Maria. The only Division-I school that showed interest in Moura coming out of junior college two years ago was UMBC because Odom thought Maura could USE his size to make opponents crazy. He knew what he was doing.
Loyola was a different story than UMBC. Unlike UMBC, which had just about zero tournament history, Loyola was part of one of THE stories, dating to 1963 when it won the national championship. Again, I was fortunate enough to write this story before the team became a national phenomenon. I actually gave Loyola a Top 25 vote in the AP poll early in the season—and, again was ripped by some on Twitter—and wrote a column about the Ramblers in January.
The current Ramblers were a terrific story in their own right, built almost from scratch by Porter Moser, a self-described Chicago Catholic, who failed in his first crack as a head coach at Illinois State, then went back to get a Ph.D. in coaching as an assistant under Rick Majerus at St. Louis.
He probably would have ended up succeeding Majerus there if the Loyola job hadn’t come up in 2011. He took the program into the Missouri Valley Conference five years ago—ironically when Creighton, his alma mater, left—and the Ramblers went from there.
But there was more to the story than just a mid-major revival. That 1963 team was one of the first big-time college programs to break the so-called "two blacks" rule. Coach George Ireland started four African-Americans through much of that season, and the Ramblers ended up meeting Mississippi State in the round of 16.
That game was really Glory Road before Glory Road—which took place three years later when Texas Western, starting five blacks, beat all-white Kentucky in the national championship game.
Loyola-Mississippi State became known as, "the game of change." The story was different, but just as dramatic. The state of Mississippi had an unwritten policy that athletes at their all-white state university didn’t compete against integrated teams.
Mississippi State had won the SEC title for a third straight season. The previous two years it had passed on the NCAA Tournament bid because ot the state "policy." This time Coach Babe McCarthy went to school president Dean W. Colvard and said enough was enough, his players deserved to compete in the tournament.
When Colvard announced that the school would defy the state’s policy and travel to East Lansing, Michigan to play the winner of the first round game between Loyola and Tennessee Tech, members of the state legislature got an injunction from a judge ordering the team not to go to play the game. The team literally sneaked out of town—sending the freshman team to the airport where sheriff’s deputies were waiting to block them. They then bussed to Memphis and flew to Detroit from there.
The photo of Loyola’s Jerry Harkness shaking hands with Mississippi State Jay Don Gold became iconic and Harkness and Gold became close friends. Loyola won the game and went on to beat two-time champion Cincinnati in overtime in the national title game.
The story has never received the attention it deserved although there is a documentary and a book about it. Suddenly, last week, TV discovered the story as if it had never been told at all. TBS ran a pre-game piece on Saturday and, even though I didn’t see it, I’m sure ESPN did the same. In ESPN-world, Adam Schefter probably broke the story.
None of that could take away from the magic of what Loyola accomplished. I hate to admit it, but I completely missed the Sister Jean angle back in January. Sometimes out-of-nowhere stories get overblown or overhyped. You can’t overblow Sister Jean. She was wonderful.
And so, when we look back on this tournament, we’ll think about Loyola and about UMBC and about how well Villanova played to win the national title.
We will put aside the endless string of TV timeouts—TEN per game; the 20-minute halftimes, which are actually longer because the clock doesn’t start until the silly walk-off interview with one of the coaches is over; we’ll forget games starting at 10:30 local time; the hypocritical non-stop references to "student-athletes," and the length of the games. We’ll remember what was wonderful, not what was flat-out dumb.
There’s no group of human beings on earth luckier than the 10 members of the basketball committee. They’re like weathermen: no matter how badly they screw up, few people notice long enough to realize how incompetent they are.
They should thank their lucky stars for UMBC and Loyola. Or, more aptly, the should fall to their knees and give thanks for Sister Jean.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—spent five months on the New York Times bestseller list. His latest Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys—A Mystery in Black and White,” was selected by the Junior Literary Guild as one of the best books of 2017.