Within a week or so, most of the NCAA tournament buzz will be about the behemoths, the high seeds who will likely advance in large numbers to the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight and beyond.
But for the first week of March Madness, the story is the little guys. And those small schools may have never come up bigger than they did on Tuesday night, as both the NCAA tournament and the older but now almost an afterthought National Invitation Tournament tipped off on Tuesday.
The NIT opened with a scenario right out of Hollywood, so much so that one of the coaches involved invoked the story of “Rocky” with his team.
While the NCAA tournament was opening under the brighter lights and the bigger arena in Dayton, Ohio, one of the more interesting NIT opening-round games in recent memory was being played in a tiny gym outside of Pittsburgh.
Defending NCAA tournament champion Kentucky, snubbed from the Big Dance after a 21-11 regular season, was the top seed for the NIT but, because their home court at Rupp Arena will be hosting NCAA tournament games later this week, the Wildcats were forced on the road.
Robert Morris, winners of the Northeast Conference regular-season title, lost its chance at the Big Dance when the Colonials were upset by Mount St. Mary’s in the conference tournament semifinals.
Their consolation prize was a No. 8 seed in the NIT and a matchup with mighty Kentucky … in their own gym.
There would never be another chance like this for Robert Morris; there is no way in hell that Kentucky comes to the Sewall Center—the Colonials’ 3,000-seat gymnasium—under any other circumstances.
So much like the fictional Rocky Balboa did on the silver screen nearly 40 years ago when champion Apollo Creed picked his name out of a book and gave him the biggest opportunity of his life–a title fight in Balboa’s hometown–Robert Morris stunned the Wildcats 59-57.
The little school that has never sent a player to the NBA took down the team stuffed with McDonald’s All-Americans and future pros.
Meanwhile in Dayton, two schools from the “not supposed to be here” category of the NCAA tournament, 16-loss North Carolina A&T and 20-loss Liberty, staged a thriller of their own while battling for the right to play top overall seed Louisville—at Rupp Arena, as irony would have it.
North Carolina A&T took a first-half lead and then held off Liberty down the stretch for a 73-72 win and a date with the Cardinals in Lexington.
For the Aggies, who were once a powerhouse in the conglomeration of historically black schools known as the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, it marked their elusive first-ever NCAA tournament win.
A&T made seven straight trips to the Big Dance from 1982-88 and two more in 1994 and 1995 and were 0-9 in tournament play.
But the program had fallen on hard times; before getting hot late this season after starting the year 15-16, North Carolina A&T had gone through 15 consecutive losing seasons.
During the first week of postseason play, March Madness dictates that the little guys will get some chances to dance.
Robert Morris and North Carolina A&T took advantage of those chances on Tuesday night.