They say the beauty of March Madness is anything can happen. Well, for this year's example, look no further than Cal Poly.
Chris Eversley scored 19 points, Dave Nwaba scored 17 more and the Mustangs held Texas Southern in check from the perimeter en route to a 81-69 victory over the Tigers in their First Four matchup on Wednesday.
The win continues by far the most improbable run of this year's tournament. Cal Poly entered the Big West tournament 10-19, having lost nine of its last 11 games to ostensibly guarantee its first losing season since 2009-10. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Joe Callero's team sprang to action. It won three straight games to capture its first Big West tournament title and its first NCAA tournament berth in history.
Now, the Mustangs will have the opportunity to become the first No. 16 seed to topple a No. 1. Undefeated Wichita State awaits, a daunting task that dwarfs anything they've done so far.
"If we win the national championship, we'll have a winning record," Callero, whose team would finish 20-19 with seven straight wins, told reporters before the game.
Odds remain firmly in favor of Cal Poly's journey ending Friday—the 0-116 record speaks for itself—but the Mustangs continued displaying promising signs of life to earn their first tournament victory. ESPN Stats & Info had a tongue-in-cheek stat in that regard:
At least for the moment, Cal Poly is the only undefeated team in NCAA tourney history (albeit 1-0 all-time after win tonight)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 20, 2014
Working the ball calmly around the perimeter to maximize possessions, Cal Poly shot 56.9 percent overall as a team. Stylistically, Callero's offensive emphasis is akin to Virginia's Tony Bennett. Get the ball into an initial action early, and if that doesn't work, work it out and get a shot in the last 10 seconds of the shot clock.
Eversley and Nwaba catalyzed the offense in the first half. Nwaba kept the game close amid a hot start from Texas Southern's offense, and Eversley got into a rhythm as the Mustangs extended their lead. They led 44-32 at the halftime break, as Texas Southern finished the half with only two field goals in the last nine minutes.
Offensively, the Tigers' offensive strategy was to live or die by Aaric Murray down low. The SWAC Player of the Year, who previously played at La Salle and West Virginia, took advantage of his size advantage and dropped easy shot after easy shot into the bucket. A tantalizing talent who will at the very least play professionally overseas, Wednesday was the perfect representation of who he is as a player.
He scored 38 points (a tournament record for a SWAC player), flashed a few NBA-level moves down low and even stretched beyond the three-point arc. No matter how Cal Poly attempted to defend him, Murray found a way to get a shot over the outstretched arms. Nick Mathews of the Houston Chronicle said Murray could probably bang with the NBA's best bigs:
Reggie Miller talking about Aaric Murray making "next-level moves," thinking Murray is an NBA player. I wouldn't disagree with Reggie.— Nick Mathews (@Nick_Mathews) March 20, 2014
For all of his offensive brilliance, though, Murray consistently refused to take advantage of his height down low. His defensive rotations were consistently late or nonexistent, and Cal Poly was able to find easy entry passes because of poor positioning. Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports perhaps put the dichotomy best:
If Aaric Murray is going down, he's gonna go down scoring 35 points...and not passing or playing defense.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 19, 2014
That's no surprise, as Texas Southern came in with far and away the worst statistical defense among tournament teams. Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings (subscription required) measured the Tigers as giving up 112.3 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 317th in the country. To contrast, only two other tournament participants ranked outside the top 200 worst defenses nationally.
Murray's indifference on that end made him at times as big of a problem as he was a boon offensively. Nonetheless, the struggles of his teammates on both ends of the floor will be the bigger focus. Reserve forward Jose Rodriguez was the only one of Murray's teammates who scored in double figures, and team defense is never the fault of just one player.
The latter troubles especially came out in the second half, where Texas Southern scored at will but could never get back within striking distance. Stretching the lead to 16 within the first two minutes, Cal Poly held a lead nearing double digits and consistently made open jumpers. Reese Morgan, who had just one made three-pointer during the regular season, hit two alone in the second half and three for the game.
When Morgan's last three went through, it gave Cal Poly a 68-55 lead with 7:47 remaining. That was enough along for Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated to chalk up the game as a win for the Big West representatives:
Cal Poly guard Reese Morgan made one three pointer all season. He has three tonight. March. Sharpie.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 20, 2014
Davis' intuition proved correct. Texas Southern drew within seven points on a Rodriguez jumper with a little more than two minutes remaining, but the Mustangs knocked down their free throws to extend the lead in the waning minutes.
Certainly, winning in a way is a double-edged sword. First Four games are considered mostly a tangential part of the NCAA tournament by most fans, with the traditional Thursday and Friday action garnering infinitely more attention. In a couple days, Wichita State will likely lay waste to Cal Poly's undefeated tournament record en route to a multi-week run.
ESPN Stats & Info had the gloomy numbers:
BPI gives Cal Poly a 2.6% chance to beat Wichita State— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 20, 2014
For now, it's time to celebrate this crazy, improbable, awesome and completely inexplicable story.
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