Jacksonville, Fla. — His Panthers had just beaten Baylor, and I mentioned to Georgia State coach Ron Hunter that I’d watched what happened to the third-seeded Bears happen an hour earlier to No. 3 seed Iowa State. The Cyclones — my pick to lose to Kentucky in the NCAA final, yikes — had let UAB linger, and the favorite that can’t distance itself in the early rounds is the favorite tempting fate.
An underdog with hope in the final minutes of an NCAA tournament game is a scary thing. That’s because the NCAA tournament isn’t like a home game in January or even a road game in February. If you lose one of those, you get to keep playing. If you lose as a favorite in this event, you’re not just done — you’re embarrassed.
To see Baylor fall to pieces in the face of Georgia State’s press was to watch a team in the throes of March pressure. Had Georgia State lost by double figures to Baylor, almost nobody would have noticed. That Baylor blew a 12-point lead and lost to a No. 14 seed has spawned this tournament’s happiest and loosest story.
Losing as a favorite is awful. Winning as an underdog is 50 shades of great. Folks who didn’t know your school had a team — or was a school in the first place — are suddenly singing your praises. Florida Gulf Coast went from being a mystery guest to the brand-named Dunk City in the span of two NCAA victories, and we mention FGCU for a reason: The 15th-seeded Eagles of 2013 are one of three teams seeded 14th or lower to reach the Sweet 16.
(The other two: Cleveland State and Mouse McFadden in 1986 and UT Chattanooga and Mack McCarthy in 1997. Both were 14th seeds.)
Hunter’s Panthers can get there by beating Xavier on Saturday, and the difference between the teams was evident Friday. Georgia State’s players spent their media session laughing and video’ing one another in the locker room. Hunter held forth — and Hunter can really hold forth — at hilarious length. As feel-good stories go, few have ever felt better than this: The little team with the injured coach and his star son and the rolling chair and Kevin Ware, too. What’s not to love?
Be advised that Xavier coach Chris Mack expressed little warmth for his upcoming opponent. Asked how it felt to be facing America’s latest team, Mack said: “Our guys don’t read USA Today.” (Not sure what that had to do with anything, but we move on.) “We don’t worry about the nation’s feel-good story. They can find another story after Saturday if we do our job.”
Meanwhile, R.J. Hunter was saying that he’d watched the video of his game-winning shot “maybe 100 times” and Ware was saying he’d watched 100 internet memes of Ron Hunter falling from his chair and the coach was worried that the Secret Service was coming after him for having used President Obama’s pick of Baylor as a motivational lever.
The Panthers were having fun. Not sure what Chris Mack was having. File that away if Saturday’s game comes down to the final two minutes. The burden of proof could crash down on Xavier, same as it did Baylor.
Further reading: Georgia State – from ‘Who’s that?’ to America’s Team.
And further: One shining moment for Georgia State’s Hunters.
Even further: How Ron Hunter’s Big Dance became a sock hop.
Yet further: Ron Hunter’s plan to keep son R.J. — buy him a car.
Furthest ever: Already a good story, Georgia State aims higher.