Give me Liberty, rather than blue bloods, for Big Dance

March 11, 2013 

March Madness arrived Sunday, when the players and cheerleaders representing Liberty University stormed onto the floor to celebrate the team’s improbable inclusion in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Although the brackets won’t be revealed until next weekend, it’s safe to presume the Liberty Flames will be designated the 68th seed in the 68-team field. Liberty not only looks like the least impressive entry in the 2013 tournament, I’d nominate it as a leading candidate for Least Impressive NCAA Tournament Entry Of All Time.

The Flames began the season by losing to Richmond – a 42-point drubbing that presaged an 0-8 start. They weren’t thinking about the Big Dance at that point. They were thinking how refreshing it would be to score more points than the opposition.

Liberty then turned things around a bit, improving from an abomination that was losing all its games to a mediocrity that was losing only half of them. The Flames took a 10-20 record into March. They entered the Big South Conference tournament with an RPI of 293, the college-basketball equivalent of running a 40-yard dash for pro scouts at noon and finishing a few minutes before sunset.

But Liberty (15-20) got hot when it had to, winning four games in a conference tournament that culminated with an 87-76 victory over Charleston Southern. Still, for only the second time in NCAA tournament history, a 20-loss team is under the tent, awaiting Selection Sunday with the kind of giddy, wide-eyed anticipation students at powerhouse schools like Duke or Indiana never are able to experience.

In 2008, a 16-20 Coppin State team preceded Liberty into the tournament, and you might bemoan how gradual expansion – including the implementation of a two-game “play-in” round – has diluted the quality of the field.

But teams with losing records have been crashing this party for decades. George Washington, which finished its regular season 9-16, found a way into the 1961 tournament. Fairfield, in 1997, became the third team in three years to qualify at 11-18. Fairfield was supposed to be devoured by North Carolina in a contest between 1 and 16 seeds, but the Stags had a different notion.

With no starter listed taller than 6-foot-6, the Stags scared the Tar Heel out of a 25-6 Carolina team that featured such future NBA players as Vince Carter, Shammond Williams, Antawn Jamison and 7-3 Serge Zwikker. Early in the second half, Fairfield led 37-28, and it kept the issue in suspense until the final minute.

That’s when Carter turned to Jamison during a timeout and said, “One shining moment, it’s all on the line.” To which Jamison responded, “One shining moment, there frozen in time.”

OK, so that conversation didn’t happen. What happened was that the Tar Heels played as if they could turn on their competitive switch whenever they felt like it, and they waited until the final minute to feel like it.

Did the Fairfield Stags belong in the 1997 tournament? Their 11-18 record speaks for itself: No way they belonged. Was the 1997 tournament enriched by a bunch of overachievers going toe-to-toe with the blue bloods of college basketball for 39 minutes? Very much so.

This is why I say: Give me Liberty, because it’s preferable to death. Give me Liberty, but if you give me Gonzaga out of a blind, $1-a-team office-pool draw, I won’t complain.

I like Liberty, although I must admit I was a little late jumping on the bandwagon. I just discovered the Flames on Sunday, when the first words I heard on my clock radio were: “There’s an NCAA tournament berth on the line for Liberty, which is taking a season record of 14-20 into this Big South championship game.”

I wiped the sleep from my eyes and pondered what I’d just heard – that a team with 20 defeats was within one game of joining the tournament field – and I was smitten.

Two hours later, when coach Dale Layer called inclusion into the tournament “life changing,” I was sold.

“I’m just looking at their faces and trying to soak in every moment,” continued Layer, former coach of an NCAA tournament team at Colorado State. “That’s what you do this for.”

No matter if Liberty loses the play-in game it presumably faces. No matter if the Flames manage to advance, only to be smoked two days later by, say, Duke.

They overcame an 0-8 start. They overcame 20 defeats. They overcame an RPI so hopeless it was indistinguishable from an RIP.

On Sunday, after a basketball game, they piled upon each other for one shining moment their coach would call “a life changer.”

Welcome back, March Madness. Make yourself at home, stay as long as you want. It’s been, what, almost a year? Pull up a chair.

I thought you’d never get here.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune

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