NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It’s not always so easy to adjust, living in the aftermath of sports history.
Hours after the celebrations died down in Charlotte, in Maryland and everywhere in between, and the shock turned to reality for Virginia — the overall No. 1 seed stunningly ousted by UMBC Friday night in a historic result — there was still more to the story. UMBC, the first 16 seed to beat a No. 1 in NCAA Tournament history, can bask in the glow of a previously impossible victory. Virginia embarked on one of the longest rides home in tournament history, but for at least one other team, life is suddenly very, very different.
Welcome to the world of second-seeded Cincinnati, the highest remaining seed in the South Regional. No. 4 Arizona was ousted in the first round (thanks, Buffalo), and 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago knocked out No. 3 Tennessee Saturday after eliminating No. 6 Miami in the first round. And in case you’re wondering, Cincinnati can’t quite believe all this either.
“It was crazy,” Kyle Washington said. “It was pretty shocking, honestly. But you know, Jairus Lyles and UMBC did a great job. They competed. That’s what the tournament is about and that’s what basketball’s about. If you believe, you can achieve anything. You can do it. It sounds cliche, but I mean, I believe it.”
On the one hand, the road is now wide open for Cincinnati (31-4), a defensive juggernaut intent on establishing itself as one of the elite programs in the nation. On Sunday afternoon they’ll play seventh-seeded 7 Nevada (28-7), the team with the highest offensive efficiency in the country. On the other hand, for high seeds, the Virginia game was less the heartwarming tale of a scrappy underdog and more a full-blown horror story.
“It’s called March Madness for a reason,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “So I’m going to start rooting for [UVA coach] Tony Bennett now when he’s not playing me every game. I think it’s just unfair. You do know — do those people know he lost one of his best players to an injury? I think that’s more important than the style of play [during their loss]. Let’s give the other team some credit that played great against them.”
And either way, Washington said the team is dogged about steadfastly following the old cliche: One game at a time. It tends to make more sense in a tournament like this, where one game is the gatekeeper to the next, and emotions run high from minute to minute. The bracket is more open than it was two days ago — that’s a fact. But Cincinnati still has to walk through the door.
They’re a team that has to fight for recruits in the basketball belt, Cronin said. It’s a developmental program, since the Bearcats don’t quite have the cachet to attract the one-and-done players. But they have experience and they have depth, and they’re playing a Nevada team that barely survived its dance with the Texas Longhorns on Friday — having to overcome a 14-point deficit before winning in overtime.
“I think if you look past anything, you could fall short,” Washington said. “And in this tournament, you don’t get a second chance . . . So that’s the benefit of going [to Cincinnati]. We’re not going to overlook anybody, and we’re not going to underestimate our competition.”