PITTSBURGH (AP) – Carlik Jones’ phone has exploded since he hit the 3-pointer at the buzzer that sent Radford into the NCAA Tournament.
“The experience after the shot has been crazy,” he said.
It should be.
The biggest win ever for the Highlanders? Sure. But the Big South Tournament champs may have topped it a week later when it went to Dayton, Ohio, and won a First Four game to advance in the bracket.
There are plenty of questions when a little-known program like Radford, out of rural southwest Virginia, makes a splash in the tourney. Like, who else have you beat? Jones noted the top win in the regular season was a 7-point win at East Carolina.
“I can’t really compare Villanova to ECU,” Jones said.
He’s got that right.
The top-seeded Wildcats (30-4) are rolling as they open the tournament against Radford (23-12) in a first-round matchup in Pittsburgh.
Villanova opens as a 23½-point favorite and had a pair of blowout wins en route to winning the Big East Tournament. Without a senior on the roster, the Wildcats have turned to their B-list junior guards – Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson – to carry them to the top of the AP Top 25 poll, the top of the Big East, and a favorite to win it all in San Antonio.
Bridges and Brunson are likely headed to the NBA after this season and Booth led the Wildcats in scoring in the 2016 national championship game. The Wildcats know the expectation among fans and experts is Final Four or bust.
“I can definitely see it,” coach Jay Wright. “I see when people talk about being out here Thursday and Saturday, you know, and we’re talking about Thursday. We’ve got to get by Thursday. It’s something that I know is around our players, also. And we have to talk to them about that, you know?”
Radford’s top expectation is having some fun.
The team crashed coached Mike Jones’ press conference on Wednesday and yelled and laughed and bounced around at the back of the room while he tried to answer questions.
“Is this legal,” Jones said, smiling. “Are you allowed to break into a press conference like this?”
The Highlanders are loose with nothing to lose – no No. 16 seed has ever beat a No. 1. Jones doesn’t have to dig deep to motivate his team to finally knock off the tourney’s top dog. He was an assistant at VCU in 2011 when the Rams won a play-in game, then beat Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas en route to the Final Four.
“A lot of people didn’t believe we belonged in the tournament at all, and then to go to the Final Four certainly is an amazing story,” Jones said. “But our guys believed that they could, and that is the point that we’ve tried to get across to our team is that anything is possible if you believe.”
If recent history is an indicator, few 1 seeds are primed to get toppled like Villanova. The Wildcats lost in the first weekend as a 1 or 2 in 2010, 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018.
“You experience the national championship, you experience losing in the first weekend,” Brunson said. “You see both ends of the spectrum.”
Other things to watch in the East Region on Thursday:
BIG WINS: Virginia Tech (21-11) might have the best three wins of any team in the East. The Hokies beat North Carolina and Duke, both No. 2 seeds, and knocked off No. 1 overall seed Virginia.
Not bad. And it served as vindication for coach Buzz Williams.
“One of my not spoken reasons for wanting the Virginia Tech job is I knew everybody said it was the worst job in the best league,” he said.
But the Hokies needed those unlikely victories just to grab an eight seed in the tournament against No. 9 Alabama (19-15). Even with those trio of top-notch wins, Virginia Tech only went 10-8 in the ACC. Virginia Tech has never advanced past the Elite Eight (1967) in nine previous appearances.
They’ll have to slow down Alabama guard Collin Sexton. Sexton averages 19 points and was named SEC co-freshman of the year and second team all-SEC. He dropped 40 points against Minnesota and a buzzer beater against Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament.
KNOW ENOUGH: Keenan Evans and Big 12 runner-up Texas Tech know all they need to know about Stephen F. Austin.
When the Lumberjacks were last in the NCAA Tournament two years ago, they beat West Virginia, the hard-pressing team that Texas Tech faces in the Big 12.
“We know that they force a lot of turnovers in the half court, and whether it’s full-court pressure or half-court, they just try to make it really tough for teams,” Evans said of SFA.
The Red Raiders (24-9), the No. 3 seed, play the Lumberjacks (28-6) Thursday night in Dallas. The Texas teams haven’t played each other since 2011, though the Red Raiders won the last six matchups since 1998.
Southland Conference tournament champ SFA also had an NCAA win in 2014. Texas Tech lost tourney openers in 2007 and 2016, their only other NCAA appearances since making the Sweet 16 with coach Bob Knight in 2005.
LATE PREP: The Florida Gators were already in Dallas before they knew who they would play in their NCAA opener Thursday night.
“Unfortunately we wasted a lot of time going against UCLA’s 2-3 zone,” coach Mike White said Wednesday.
St. Bonaventure (26-7) beat UCLA 65-58 in a First Four game Tuesday night, advancing as the No. 11 seed to play the Gators from the SEC.
“It was a first-time deal for us leading into this one, and you don’t know who you’re going to play,” White said. “That’s a position we put ourselves in, and we were close to not having this type of situation.”
Florida (20-12), a top-five team early in the season, had a three-game losing streak late in mid-February. The Gators then lost their SEC Tournament opener against Arkansas.