UB coach Bobby Hurley showed up for Sunday evening’s NCAA Tournament selection party with a big, shiny ring on his right hand. It had a blue “1” on the face, to signify the two national championships that he won as the point guard for Duke in 1991 and ’92.
“I wore it for the first time when we played Kentucky,” Hurley said at Santora’s on Transit Road, where UB gathered to find out that the Bulls would be playing West Virginia as a No. 12 seed on Friday in Columbus, Ohio.
“I thought we could use a little extra that night,” Hurley said. “We played well, so I decided to stay with it.”
Hurley might as well think big. His team had won the MAC championship the night before with a convincing 89-84 victory over Central Michigan in Cleveland, earning an automatic bid into the NCAAs and establishing itself as a team to watch in the upcoming Big Dance.
There’s a mystique attached to the No. 12 seeds, who have been upsetting people’s tournament brackets for several years. The 5-12 line has been a booby trap for favorites in recent tournaments, as the gap between the fifth and 12th seeds has grown increasingly narrow.
The Bulls were widely expected to get a 12th seed, and they seemed thrilled when the news arrived on CBS shortly after 6 p.m. They didn’t have to wait long, either. Their half of the Midwest bracket was the first one revealed on the big TV screen on the wall of the restaurant.
The first two games in the Midwest went up on the screen. Then West Virginia was posted as the No. 5. You could feel the tension build as the crowd awaited the announcement of the 12th seed opposite the Mountaineers.
Greg Gumbel uttered the words, “They’ll take on the Bulls of Buffalo!” and the room erupted in cheers. Shannon Evans, the precocious sophomore guard who goes by the nickname “Hollywood,” leaped out of his chair in the front row and thrust his arms in the air.
Later, I asked Evans if he knew how many times a 12th seed had upset a No. 5 in 56 first-round games going back to the 2001 tourney.
“The last 56?” Evans said, racking his brain. “Twenty-four?”
The kid was pretty close. He was off by two. Over the last 14 years, the 12th seeds are 26-30 in the first round, which shows how little there is to separate teams in the middle portion of the bracket.
So UB, which will ride an eight-game winning streak into Columbus, is not simply content to make the field for the first time in school history. They expect to do damage, to be one of the many teams who make a run out of the No. 12 position.
“This team’s focused on winning,” said Danny White, UB’s athletic director. “They’re not just happy to be in the tournament.”
It’s not outlandish to contemplate a Sweet 16 run. In the last 14 NCAA tourneys, 14 teams seeded 12 or lower have won twice and reached the regionals. Ten No. 12 seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16 during that time. Ohio, a MAC rival of UB’s, did it three years ago as a 13 seed.
The Bulls won the MAC title with Justin Moss, their star forward and league Player of the Year, hobbled by an ankle injury. They’re on a roll and confident enough to think they can play even better and go on one of those Cinderella runs.
“Definitely,” Evans said. “West Virginia is a great team. They’re from a good conference, the Big 12. But Coach Hurley is going to prepare us the next couple of days, and we’ll be ready for Friday.
“The difference between mid-majors and high majors is, some kids are overlooked and some kids develop late,” Evans said. “I feel like I developed late. I could easily play at a high-major level, so it’s going to be a great game Friday. It’s going to be interesting.”
Hurley seems to think so. He believes his team shares some of the qualities of past teams that made runs out of the No. 12 hole, hot, hungry and high-powered squads whose ability couldn’t be properly measured by the NCAA computer.
“We’ve been in every game,” Hurley said. “I don’t think we’ve played a game this year where we didn’t show up to play. I like my chances with the group I coach and their competitiveness and their talent.
“The game won’t feel big to them,” he said. “We played a lot of big games, especially the last eight games we’ve won. We’ve been playing for our season now for a month. So I think the guys will be super-excited and ready to go.”
Moss is as excited as anyone. He didn’t play close to his best in the MAC tourney after spraining his ankle last Wednesday. He said he’ll be 100 percent by Friday and determined to show why he was named the MAC’s Most Valuable Player when the Bulls return to Ohio for the Big Dance.
Considering that Moss was unable to push off his bad foot and play his typically dynamic game in the post, you have to think UB is capable of taking its game to an even higher level if he’s at full strength.
“Most definitely,” Moss said, cradling the MAC championship plaque like a newborn in his arms. “We didn’t even have our best playoff game. Everybody stepped up. We have a lot of offensive weapons and we locked down on defense. So I think we’ll be even better once the time comes.
“Anybody can beat anybody,” Moss said. “Never take anybody for granted. I think sometimes big teams think they can just show up and play. But everyone is D-I athletes. We came here for a reason, and that’s to win championships.”
Evans said you can be sure of one thing: The Bulls won’t be shy. He said they’ll play their usual attacking style, which makes them a live underdog and a joy for hoop fans to watch.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun, a lot of fun,” Evans said. “It’s always fun in March.”
The fun is seeing underdogs rise up. It’s the charm of March Madness. If UB actually makes a run to the Sweet 16, a familiar foe will likely be waiting: Kentucky, which beat them early in the year after UB took the lead into halftime.
Hurley would love a return match. It has a certain ring to it.