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Upset City: A Look Back at the 2016-17 Season 

Small School Big Legend

To many of us, Coach Massimino will always be remembered as the energetic Italian coach who led Villanova to one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Final Four. After Villanova, coach Mass moved on to UNLV and then Cleveland State. In 2006, he would build his last program in Florida from scratch.

 

The Keiser University Seahawks play in the Sun Conference and have been perennial national contenders. What makes their upset of Drexel quite the feat is that, Keiser is not even an NAIA D1 program. There have been many good NAIA D1 schools that have won against NCAA D1 programs but Keiser’s victory may very well be the only time a division 2 team from the NAIA’s men’s side has ever accomplished the feat. On a side note, University of Antelope Valley’s Jason Pruitt from the women’s side of NAIA D2 won against Pepperdine on opening night last season.

 

The passing of coach Massimino will always be a big loss for the basketball community. It is an honor for all small college basketball coaches across the country to have the legendary Coach Mass in our fraternity.

 

Repping the USCAA

Then there’s Thomas Bird. After three years at the helm of the University of Maine Fort Kent, Tom would earn his first D1 victory. Before their historic win, Bird and his Bengals had previously lost some exhibition games against Canadian teams during their off-season tour. It is important to note that some college basketball teams in Canada are pretty good. For instance, 31-5 D1 Wichita State got the “shock” of their lives, losing by 25 points to Canadian school, Carlton University, in the preseason (2016-17).

 

According to Bird, the losses in Canada made them a much better team. After scouting the University of Maine, Bird was convinced that his squad would be competitive against the Black Bears at certain areas of the game and that they would be able to match up well against their D1 counterpart. They spent ten days to prepare for their opening match up against the Black Bears and felt confident about their chances. On the day of the game, Bengal fans outnumbered the home crowd in Orono, which fueled the team’s swagger. Like all small-school versus D1 match ups, a smooth-sailing victory for the underdogs is never the norm. The Bengals fought and stuck to their game plan until they captured a 5-point victory. Here is an excerpt of what Coach Bird had to say about the game:

 

“At the start, we had a couple shots rim in and out, we missed a couple of layups and I sort of thought, oh boy another one of these games, but we allowed them to fire it up from 3 and try to protect the paint. They shot very poorly and quite frankly didn't take care of the ball. They turned it over 21 times and we ran them into the ground. They literally couldn't keep up with our two California guards who I felt were the two best players on the court that day. Rosevelt Smith a senior from Fairfield, CA had a career game of 29 points. We took a 13-point lead midway through the second half, only to have them come back and score 13 in a row. The previous two years, we would have crumbled mentally, but our guys never stopped believing and wanted to win so bad. It was an amazing feeling to see that as their coach.”

As the final buzzer sounded, Tom Bird had led the University of Main Fort Kent Bengals of the USCAA to an upset of D1 University of Maine Black Bears. It is highly likely that the Bengals are the only single membership USCAA team to have defeated a D1. What is not in question is that recruiting should have been great this off season for coach Bird and the Bengals. The Bengals would finish the season with a 23-9 record for the 2016-17 season, en route to an appearance in the USCAA National Championships.

 

First in the West

 

The Bethesda Flames now hold the distinction of being the only non-NCAA/NAIA team in the West Coast to win against a division 1 opponent. Whether we admit it or not, most coaches at the small college level dream of getting that one D1 upset. Understandably so. Having that David and Goliath narrative in our coaching journey can be just as cherished as a national championship. Last season was quite special for our team. We started and ended each practice early in the year with me telling our guys about the great Chaminade upset of 82. None of our guys were really familiar with the Silverswords’ D1 conquest. 

 

My goal was to make dreamers out of our players, ala Jimmy Valvano. I wanted them to believe the possibility of us being able to make history and get a D1 team. I thought that this was really important because I’ve seen really good non-D1 teams go into their D1 matchups expecting to lose. Granted that the likelihood of winning against a D1 opponent is quite rare, I feel that you have to approach the game with some belief that if we work harder or play smarter, winning is possible.

While the Honolulu game is what I often tell my players about, the D1 upset that really inspired me to chase after my own white whale was Arizona Christian’s victory over Northern Arizona University in 2013. It was very inspiring to see a team who traditionally lost by around 40 points to NAU in their previous meetings dominate the game. In fact, ACU was up by as much as 17 at some point in the second half. We played ACU later that season and I made it a point to congratulate their head coach, Jeff Rutter, before the game. The guy just won one for us small schools and it gave me the determination to do the same.

Throughout the season, we matched up really well against most of our D1 opponents. Ironically, I was highly conflicted when it came to our game against CSUN.

 

I have so much respect for Reggie Theus as a coach and as a person that a part of me did not really want to win.  In fact, while I always pace the floor when I coach, I sat down 90% of the time that night. I didn’t want anyone to think I was some hotshot trying show up the other team. The magic of that night was that my players responded to every call I made from my seat on the bench. To be honest, I may have put the dream in my player’s heads, but they wanted to win that game so much more than I did. I think that actually helped me coach the game better because I was not putting any pressure on myself to win. It was our team’s night of perfection and we will always be bound together by that win.

 

Homage to Historical Upsets

For every recent D1 upset there is always a source of inspiration from the past. Even to this day, the Chaminade upset of Ralph’s Sampson’s number 1 ranked Virginia remains to be the most inspiring of all. At that time, the small school in Honolulu, Hawaii was an NAIA program. They have since moved up to the D2 level. The sheer magnitude of this upset has inspired so many small-college coaches to dream of slaying their Goliaths throughout the decades. It is quite ironic that there was virtually no media exposure for this game at that time. News outlets did not publish the story until a few days after the game was played. In fact, it took ESPN more than two decades finally feature the team from Honolulu and their gargantuan accomplishment. Despite the lack of initial attention, it remains to be the most celebrated upset in hoops history.

Three other upsets which have not quite received the same fanfare as the Chaminade-Virginia game are worth mentioning. There is the 1988 Christmas day UC Riverside stunner against Iowa. At that time, UCR was still at the D2 level while Iowa on the other hand was ranked number 4 in the nation at the D1 level. In another Christmas day match up in 1997, American-Puerto Rico University, a D2 program lead by Spaniard head coach, Pep Claros, would beat Arkansas. The Razorbacks were ranked number 12 in the nation at that time and had just won the NCAA D1 national championship three years prior. However, the most overlooked upset of all time, at least in my opinion, is the December 28, 1988 game between D2 University of Alaska Anchorage and then number 2 in the nation, Michigan Wolverines. In that same season, Michigan would go on to win the NCAA D1 national championship, led by future NBA star Glen Rice and coached by the legendary Steve Fisher.

 

The main reason these three upsets seemed to have been forgotten is mostly because the victors are all division 2 programs. Our very own John McCarthy of smallcollegebasketball.com has even gone on to say that the top 10-20 NCAA division 2 teams around the country are simply better than many lower-level D1 programs. Never the less, it is only fitting to pay homage to the teams above.

Who knows what the 2017-18 season will hold for small colleges in terms of D1 upsets. What is certain is that there will be some great basketball games played away from the spotlight of division one basketball.