- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. — For a coach-hoisting, Las Vegas-crashing NCAA tournament upset to happen, a vital component is delineating between hope and belief.

It starts when the bracket is revealed. Then it moves to dealing with the day before, being relaxed and assured. Finally, on game day, it’s not just head-nodding when told, “We can to do this,” it’s a rigid, gut-depth embrace of the thought.

Seven times, a No. 15 seed has defeated a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Never has a No. 1 seed fallen in the first game, but there is more and more wonder if this year could be the one for that to happen.

No. 16 seed Hampton has been granted the unlikely chance to fell a No. 1 when it plays Virginia on Thursday afternoon. It knows that in 30 years of matchups between those spots, the top seed is 124-0. Hampton was also in this position last year, when it lost by 23 points to then-undefeated Kentucky.

“Once you get to this point, you could either embrace it or you can make it the elephant in the room,” Hampton coach Ed Joyner Jr. said. “We’ve embraced it. We’ve talked about it. We talked about the feeling that we could have if we’re able to do it. We also talked about it’s easier said than done. You have to go out there and you have to be able to perform because Virginia’s going to perform.”

Former Hampton coach Steve Merfeld, now an assistant at Creighton, knows the elation Joyner has allowed his players to consider. When Merfeld was thrust into the air by Pirates forward David Johnson, hands raised, legs flung upward, he visually defined the reaction to one of the great upsets in tournament history. In 2001, Hampton beat Iowa State to become the fourth No. 15 seed to pull off an inconceivable opening win.

“I think first and foremost, the lower-seeded teams can’t just be satisfied being in the NCAA tournament,” Merfeld said on Wednesday. “In our situation, that was certainly evident, and the reason that was evident was we had three fifth-year seniors on that team, two of which had played in an NCAA tournament before, one at Richmond and another at Syracuse. Those are the two things that come to mind right away: Getting your guys to believe that they could win, then having the experience within the team, leadership within the team to get the rest of the guys to understand it’s still a game, and what you’ve been doing all year long is good enough if you believe.”

There was a gap, then a blitz of upsets, after Hampton’s win. In 2012, two No. 2 seeds won. It happened again in 2013, making three upsets in a two-year span after just four in the history of the tournament.

When Lehigh was slotted against Duke in 2012, there was a weapon on its roster most of the country did not know about at the time. C.J. McCollum was the Patriot League player of the year. He tore Duke apart. McCollum scored 30 points and added six rebounds and six assists.

The Mountain Hawks claimed before the game that they thought a matchup with the Blue Devils fit what they wanted. The thought was swept aside at the time. After Duke was unable to corral McCollum, Lehigh was proven correct.

“If you have a player that can elevate his game in a moment like that, that can really catapult you and get you through some of those difficult times,” Lehigh coach Brett Reed said on Wednesday. “We had that with C.J. McCollum. Because of his ability to score, we always felt like we had a pretty good chance in that game.”

Former Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield was in Raleigh on Wednesday in different gear than in 2013. Enfield, in his third season as the coach at USC, used the Eagles’ upset of Georgetown that year to land a more prominent job in a power conference. The Trojans, back in the NCAA tournament, have a locker room next to Florida Gulf Coast’s at PNC Arena. If each team wins, they would play each other in the second round. The Trojans would have to beat No. 9 seed Providence. The Eagles, who defeated Fairleigh Dickinson on Tuesday in a First Four game, would have to beat No. 1 seed North Carolina.

The surprise win Enfield was in charge of three years ago was seared into brains because of the approach and anonymity of the school. The Eagles played a fantastical dunking style, an approach to basketball that appeared to be claimed from summertime blacktop. That Florida Gulf Coast was founded in 1991 made the win all the more staggering. A new school with a wild style lit up legacy heavy Georgetown.

“I think you’ve seen that already in the NCAA tournament, in the history of the tournament, if there is a big upset in that discrepancy of the seeding, it’s because the better players of that low seed have played great games,” Enfield said. “I’m not sure there’s a magic formula for it. If there was, I don’t know it. But, I think the parity in college basketball right now, you’ll probably see a lot of upsets in this tournament and that’s the reason you see so many upsets during the regular season. There’s a lot of good players in this country. Just because you’re at a mid-major school doesn’t mean you can’t compete with the power conferences.”

Thursday afternoon, when they trot onto the floor as 24-point underdogs, Hampton will have at least quieted the roiling in its stomachs. The Pirates are in the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year. They managed the media, initial allure and underdog status last season. Senior guard Brian Darden was nervous then. The butterflies have left him.

“We’re definitely a lot more calm than we were before,” Darden said.

They will have 40 minutes to put together an upset never before seen. If the history of similar upheaval are an indication, Hampton will have needed to believe in itself since Sunday. The start will have to reassure those thoughts. Its best players will have to be even better than usual. Virginia will have to buckle.

Otherwise, it’s just another part of one-side math.

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