OMAHA, Neb. — Robert Jones was tired. Going on four hours of sleep, the Norfolk State assistant coach stood in the middle of the cramped locker room at CenturyLink Center on Friday and handed out his nine-page recipe to beat Missouri.
The game plan for Norfolk State’s first-ever NCAA tournament game was one page longer than normal. Jones, the fifth-year assistant who drew the scouting responsibilities, added extra keys after watching tape of five Missouri games the night before.
Then Jones, known among players as an inspirational speaker, reminded the 15th-seeded group of their rag-tag origins.
“We’ve got to take advantage of this moment,” Jones recalled saying, “because a lot of us shouldn’t be here.”
Then, of course, Norfolk State left the cramped locker room chanting “Play to win,” stunned No. 2 seed Missouri 86-84 and became only the fifth No. 15 seed to win in the tournament’s history.
“When it’s a big game, he gives you a good speech,” Tamares said. “He gives you the extra oomph.”
On Saturday, Jones detailed how he, head coach Anthony Evans and fellow assistants Larry Vickers and Wilson Washington conjured up the plan that took out Missouri. Ten hours of sleep reenergized Jones, who waded through 57 text messages and 35 Twitter mentions on his BlackBerry after the game. An email even arrived from a girl he dated in junior high.
The pregame message was still fresh in his mind, even as preparations loomed for Sunday’s game against Florida.
“A lot of people overlooked them,” Jones said. “They shouldn’t technically be there. I was a Division III player. I was a high school coach. Maybe I shouldn’t be there.”
Eight of the 15 players on the roster transferred to Norfolk State from other schools. To senior guard Chris McEachin, who left Radford to be closer to home, the patchwork roster is the team’s identity.
The unlikely narrative extends to the coaches. Years ago, Evans cleaned bathrooms at a convenience store, the 84 Quick Stop, to make ends meet while an unpaid assistant at Orange County Community College in Newburgh, N.Y.
“He was selling beef jerky,” Jones said.
And, at 57 years old, Washington, a two-year NBA veteran, is in his first season as a college assistant.
So, Jones told the locker room to forget Missouri’s hefty athletic department budget (“We use our money wisely,” Norfolk State athletic director Marty Miller quipped) or that its coach, Frank Haith, “makes 20 times as much as coach Evans.” The coaches preached breaking the game into four-minute increments. Win those. And have fun.
“When you’re the underdog, there is no pressure,” Evans said.
Using a green marker, Jones wrote six keys to winning on the corner of a whiteboard in the locker room. They weren’t keys usually associated with a team that lost to Division II Elizabeth City earlier in the season and was picked by oddsmakers to lose by Missouri by 21.5 points.
“Wear them down.”
The coaches were giddy to draw Missouri: They felt its small lineup was similar to the four-guard lineups commonplace in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference they won. They didn’t want a bigger team, like Kansas or Kentucky, in the first game.
The game plan was similar to what Norfolk State used against Coppin State and Hampton. Sure, Missouri’s four-guard combination was more talented. But Norfolk State’s strategy was the same.
That included rotating 10 players as part of constant pressure on defense. Missouri only went seven deep. Norfolk State’s coaches saw an advantage and, later in the game, applied their three-quarters court press to sap Missouri’s energy.
“A lot of teams are scared to press Missouri because their guards are so good,” Jones said. “That’s the way we play.”
The plan extended to running two early isolation plays for O'Quinn to eliminate any nerves. The coaches didn’t care if he missed the shots (O'Quinn hit his first three field goals) but knew he becomes a better, more confident defender when he’s in rhythm on offense.
Missouri’s single-coverage of O'Quinn shocked the coaches. In the MEAC, O'Quinn drew double- and triple-teams each game. Even Marquette, which beat Norfolk State twice, doubled O'Quinn. Jones couldn’t remember single-coverage since last season. Get that one-on-one matchup, the coaches believed, and no defender in the country can stop him.
In a quieter locker room on Saturday, Vickers, not Jones, was the tired one. He’s responsible for the Florida scouting report. Not going to bed until 5 a.m. Saturday, he watched six Florida games alone in his room at the Holiday Inn and produced six typed pages of tendencies, statistics and keys.
The 29-year-old who played four seasons for Norfolk State didn’t know what he’ll tell the team during his pregame speech Sunday. Maybe a hip-hop reference or something from the heart. His eyes were glazed and red. Vickers knew was certain of one thing.
“I’ll sleep,” Vickers said, “on the plane home.”
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