When Hampton University basketball coach Edward Joyner Jr. was asked how his team — ranked the lowest of all 68 invited to the NCAA Tournament — could possibly beat No. 1 Kentucky, he grabbed his cellphone.
“Hold on, I told you all I had Jesus on speed dial,” Joyner said.
Then he placed a call on behalf of his Pirates, who entered the tournament with a 16-17 record and defeated Manhattan on Tuesday in a play-in game for the honor of meeting 34-0 Kentucky on Thursday.
“Hey, Jesus, first of all you can’t play so I ain’t worried about you being hot,” Joyner said. “They want to know how much of a mountain and what our odds are.
“Hello? Hello? I guess he’ll get back to me.”
You can’t blame Jesus for hanging up on Joyner. No one, not even an uplifter of the downtrodden, knows quite what to advise a 32-point underdog.
In this matchup and many more, we can understand the everlasting magnetism of March Madness. There are teams and games and frantic finishes that will make you laugh until you cry or cry until you laugh.
You have characters such as Joyner, suddenly shining a spotlight on Hampton (Virginia) University, which, if you didn’t know before, was founded after the Civil War to educate freed slaves and is the alma mater of Booker T. Washington.
For three weeks, college basketball is America’s pastime precisely because America is the “land of opportunity.” Americans like to think if they got a chance — just one shot — they could marshal all their resourcefulness and fortitude and upend the very best in their chosen field.
When else than during the season when hope springs eternal does a team such as Hampton get to challenge mighty Kentucky? When else does North Florida or Robert Morris get to take on blue-blooded Duke?
We love stories of the underdog — David and Cinderella, Oliver Twist and Rocky Balboa. That’s why unexpected triumphs in the tournament retain a fable-like glow: Don Haskins’ all-black Texas Western starters beating all-white Kentucky in 1966; Jim Valvano’s sixth-seeded N.C. State Wolfpack beating two No. 1 seeds on its way to the 1983 championship; Jim Larrañaga’s 11th-seeded George Mason team making it to the 2006 Final Four, and Butler making back-to-back trips to the title game in 2010 and 2011.
Forget for a moment that the last time Kentucky played a team with a power rating lower than 250 the Wildcats clobbered Montana State 86-28 in November. Hampton can dream. However, a No. 16 seed has never upset a No. 1 seed, except in the women’s tournament, when Harvard surprised Stanford in 1998.
Although it would be foolish to pick against Kentucky or fellow top seeds Duke, Wisconsin (against Coastal Carolina) and Villanova (against Lafayette), the first two days of the tournament offer some tempting upsets. Fans of the game and people who enjoy jumping into their office pool know you can’t just play it safe. The science of bracketology requires some brave irrationality.
The 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, featuring coach Brad Underwood’s inventive pinch-post offense, could easily knock off No. 5 Utah. Look for coach Bobby Hurley’s Buffalo team, which likes to play at sprint pace, to push No. 5 West Virginia into breathless mistakes. Georgetown, at No. 4, could find itself flummoxed by Eastern Washington and Tyler Harvey, the nation’s leading scorer who makes 43 percent of this three-point shots. Harvey, son of a basketball referee, was overlooked out of high school because he didn’t grow to 6-4 until his senior year; he began college as a walk-on.
Hampton is hoping star guard Quinton Chievous — son of former Missouri and NBA player Derrick — recovers quickly from an ankle injury. Hampton is in the tournament because of a magical run to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tourney title, which bumped undefeated MEAC season champ North Carolina Central to the NIT, and a 75-71 loss to Miami in Coral Gables on Tuesday.
North Carolina Central’s players overcame personal adversity: One player’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, another’s sister died in a car accident and another’s girlfriend was in a coma after a car accident. The school, located in Durham, gets overshadowed by the Triangle’s Big Three of Duke, UNC and N.C. State.
“Being in Tobacco Road, it’s like we have the Kardashians, and we’re not Kim,” coach LeVelle Moton said.
He was raised by a single mother who ran her own maid service. He knows all about the ethic and appeal of the underdog.
“I read a statistic that 21 percent of Americans are considered successful, which means that 79 percent are probably cheering for my team or Hampton because they can identify with us,” he said. “We have the No. 2 home win streak and the No. 5 defense in the nation but that gets drowned out by Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] winning his 1,000th game.”
Moton expects to get consumed by the NCAA Tournament, watching as many games as possible. He believes basketball is the sport most susceptible to upsets.
“There’s only one way to score in basketball, while in football you can score on a safety or interception, and in baseball you can score on an error or a bad pitch,” he said. “In basketball, you have to get that ball through that hole. The hole gets smaller when you miss a couple, and even smaller when you’re on national TV, and really small when the clock is ticking down to zero on your season.”
That’s the essence of March Madness, prime time for the underdog.