Before his team's stunning 86-84 upset of second-seeded Missouri in the opening round of the NCAA tournament last March, Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans often received puzzled stares from recruits he approached for the first time.
"Quite often we'd be asked if we were Division I or Division II," Evans recalled. "I think people know who we are now."
Indeed, Norfolk State no longer is such an unfamiliar name in basketball circles since it became one of only six No. 15 seeds to win an NCAA tournament game. Between SportsCenter highlights, TV and radio appearances and coverage in newspapers across the nation, the Spartans received such a rush of publicity after that victory that numerous facets of the university have benefited.
Undergraduate applications to Norfolk State have spiked. Donations from alumni and attendance at athletic pep rallies and home football games have too. And Evans received a longterm contract extension, an invite to the ESPYs and a greater appreciation for how life-changing one victory can be.
When Evans was in New Orleans last April for the Final Four, everyone from fellow coaches, to administrators to everyday basketball fans approached him to offer congratulations on the landmark upset. Athletic director Marty Miller experienced the same phenomenon traveling throughout the country this summer.
"If someone saw me with my Norfolk State apparel on at a hotel, they'd come up to me and say they saw that game," Miller said. "That's when it started hitting me the tremendous impact it had not just for our fans but for people throughout the country. I even had people in the military say they watched that game. So evidently, not only was it locally or nationally, it was internationally."
What helped Norfolk State's victory resonate with fans was how unlikely it was.
Whereas Missouri had a case for a No. 1 seed after capping a 30-win regular season with the Big 12 tournament title, Norfolk State finished second to Savannah State in the MEAC in the regular season and sustained losses to Illinois State by 32, Delaware State by 17 and Division II Elizabeth City by 12. Only 1.2 percent of fans who filled out a bracket on ESPN.com predicted the Spartans to win — and surely most of them did it because they liked the school colors better or found their mascot to be more ferocious.
Privately, however, Norfolk State's coaching staff celebrated the matchup as soon as it popped up on their TV screens on Selection Sunday. Even though Missouri boasted a talented backcourt, the Spartans had defended against four-guard alignments much of the season and felt better equipped to handle that than a high-major opponent capable of punishing them with size and strength in the paint.
Kyle O'Quinn consoles Missouri's Phil Pressey after the game (Getty Images)"At the high-major level, Missouri was a mismatch for a lot of teams, but we played a lot of teams who used four guards," Evans said. "We faced Marquette twice and a lot of teams in our conference were guard-heavy. So we thought we could defend. It was just a matter of being able to put the ball in the basket on that stage."
Norfolk State's new challenge six months later is building on its momentum with sustained success.
Other victorious No. 15 seeds like Hampton and Coppin State have faded from the hoops spotlight in a hurry, but Evans believes the Spartans can have a longer shelf life. He sees next year's team as a potential MEAC contender despite the loss of three of its four leading scorers including center Kyle O'Quinn, who averaged 15.9 points and 10.3 rebounds last season and recently signed a three-year contract with the Orlando Magic.
To make Evans' vision come true, Norfolk State will have to rely on Pendarvis Williams, a 6-foot-6 junior who tallied 11.9 points per game last season and shot 38.6 percent from behind the arc. Among the former role players Evans expects to assume a greater role next season is 6-11 big man Brandon Goode, O'Quinn's seldom-used backup at center a year ago.
"His progress over the summer has been tremendous," Evans said. "When we were in the Bahamas, you could see his growth. When he was on the floor, everything was different. The game became easier for us both offensively and defensively. He's not a guy who's going to give us 20 points a game, but his presence on the floor gives us a different dimension."
It probably won't be until the 2013 class that Norfolk State experiences a recruiting boost from the Missouri win. Evans landed a transfer from Fresno State this spring and hopes to add some promising high schoolers to the fold soon too.
In the past, Evans' sales pitch probably would have included reiterating that Norfolk State is in Division I. Now, six months removed from one of greatest upsets in NCAA tournament history, recruits and their families are well aware the Spartans compete on college basketball's highest level
For more news on MEAC teams, check out Rivals.com.
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