GREENSBORO, N.C. A few Lehigh students at the Greensboro Coliseum gave the "we're not worthy" salute to Duke's Mason Plumlee after a rim-rattling dunk two minutes into the Blue Devils' NCAA Tournament game Friday night with their Mountain Hawks.
Having driven down from the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania to see their team lace it up with basketball royalty must have been a thrill in and of itself. They probably expected to get blown out, but would have some fun nonetheless.
Yet, two hours later, it was Plumlee and the Blue Devils who weren't worthy of the Mountain Hawks, as those frat boys' schoolmates turned this crazy event on its head with one of the most memorable upsets in NCAA Tournament history a 75-70 Lehigh win thatmarked just the sixth time a 15 seed has beaten a 2 seed, and second of the day (Norfolk State beat Mizzou in the other).And the thing about it is, if you sat courtside and watched this unfold you likely walked away not all that surprised.
But a brief recent history lesson is in order first:
Duke, the No. 2 seed in the South Region, came into this game having not played well since a Feb. 23 win at Florida State. The Blue Devils struggled beating Virginia Tech and Wake Forest two teams that went 4-12 in the ACC then were blown out at home by North Carolina, and were offensively disjointed in two games last weekend at the ACC Tournament in Atlanta. Theyalso were without 6-foot-10 swing man Ryan Kelly, their third leading scorer.
To suggest Duke was not playing well and even hanging by a thread would not have been an exaggeration. But it's still Duke. It still has McDonald's All-Americans all over its roster, and it has arguably the game's greatest coach on the sideline scheming for and matching every move, and then some. But it also had been descending for a few weeks.
"We just haven't been playing well," Duke guard Tyler Thornton said. "And I guess it really caught up with us tonight. I don't know what else to say."
So where does Lehigh fit in to all of this?
First off, the 15th-seeded Mountain Hawks are good, really good, especially their backcourt. C.J. McCollum is a great college player, not just a good one. The throng of ACC media watching courtside pegged him early on as the best player on the floor, and he didn't disappoint. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski agreed in the postgame news conference.
McCollum finished with 30 points and six assists, but his ability to get into the minds of the Duke players carried even greater value than his statistical contributions. And it was evident early on he knew it.
"When I get the ball, I try to clear my mind and just read the whole floor, the entire floor," McCollum said. "But usually when I have the ball, I'm trying to make a play for my team or in scoring that I'm making the proper pass. It means a lot to me to get this win."
Second, Lehigh is well coached by Dr. Brett Reed. His kids weren't in the least bit impressed by the lettering on Duke's duds. In fact, they were the aggressors. They took it at the Blue Devils, putting Duke's suspect perimeter defense on its heels, forcing the bigs to help out, and when Duke routinely failed to help the helper, Lehigh capitalized.
And third, this tournament has a way of extracting magic out of the most unique matchups and turning college basketball into a whirlwind of the inexplicable
Had Duke and Lehigh played on the same floor a few days after Christmas, the Blue Devils probably would have won by about 15-20 points, if not more. That's just the way it usually goes.
But the NCAA Tournament has a way at times of turning smart players into insecure ones, like we saw with the Devils tonight, and great shooters into bad ones. Duke came into this contest tops in the ACC in 3-point shooting at 37.6 percent, but the Devils converted just 6 of 26 (23.1 percent) from beyond the arc.
"In that this is March madness, upsets happen," Reed said. "It's why the general public and the nation really appreciate this tournament because anything can happen."
And on this night, it did.