DAYTON, Ohio (AP)—Boulder. Denver. El Paso. Akron. Tempe. Ann Arbor. Atlanta. Stillwater. Columbia. Eugene.
And Manhattan—as in Kansas, not New York.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff went on a brutal barnstorming tour to open the season. The Golden Lions visited 10 states in two months, seeing everything there is to see from the Great Lakes to the West Coast and the Deep South.
And, where did it get them? Nowhere, really.
When the calendar changed, the Golden Lions were 0-11 and seemed to have about as much direction as a broken compass. They eventually found their way and are finishing in the one place they’ve never been—the NCAA tournament.
The Golden Lions (17-15) play Winthrop (19-13) in the opening round on Tuesday night at the University of Dayton Arena, the annual game between the tournament’s two lowest seeds. The winner plays Duke, the No. 1 seed in the South Regional, on Friday in Jacksonville, Fla.—one of the few places the Golden Lions missed on the opening jaunt that nearly did them in.
“It was tough, but the experience and being able to be in front of those crowds actually built us up for our tournament and conference schedule,” guard Terrence Calvin said. “It made us a better team in the long run.”
The Golden Lions hit the road on Nov. 13 to play at Colorado. The next few weeks quickly became a blur of bad outcomes—Denver, Texas-El Paso, Akron, Arizona State, Michigan, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Missouri, Kansas State. The Golden Lions rarely got blown out, but couldn’t get that win.
The worst part?
“Basically, the long bus rides,” Calvin said. “Some of the trips, we weren’t able to fly, so we spent 13 hours riding a bus.”
The closest they came to pulling one out was a 68-65 loss at Akron—one of the Mid-American Conference’s top teams—on Nov. 27. The Golden Lions led by a point with 50 seconds left, but failed to score the rest of the way.
A 73-53 loss to Oregon in Eugene on Dec. 28 concluded that 11-game disaster and sent them into the new year and the Southwestern Athletic Conference schedule with a lot of ground to make up just to get their record looking respectable.
“Once we started in the SWAC, we got some wins under our belt and it started to move up,” forward Tavaris Washington said. “We were like 1-11, 2-11. Once we looked up, we were almost even. Once it turned around, it was like we were dead even.”
They never got above .500 until the conference tournament in Louisiana, which ended with a 50-38 win over Texas Southern in front of a large contingent of Arkansas-Pine Bluff fans who no longer minded that 0-11 beginning.
“It was a nice turnaround,” Washington said.
Winthrop knows about turnarounds, too.
The Eagles won seven Big South championships under Gregg Marshall, who left for Wichita State. Assistant Randy Peele got the job and got Winthrop to the NCAA tournament again in 2008, but the Eagles got off to a 1-10 start last season—sound familiar?—and never recovered, sliding to fifth in the league.
When they got off to a 5-9 start this season, there were some rumblings about the direction of the program.
The low point was a 57-54 loss at Charleston Southern on Jan. 2. The Eagles had won their last 17 games against the Big South rival. Senior forward Mantoris Robinson lashed into his teammates after that one, and things began to change.
“As a leader, I had to call out some of my teammates,” Robinson said. “I told them that this shouldn’t happen and we had to step our play up. To me, that turned the season around.”
They won 14 of their last 18 games, including the conference tournament title, to reach the NCAA tournament for the ninth time since 1999. The Eagles have one NCAA tournament victory, a 74-64 win over Notre Dame in 2007.
Although they’ve never played Arkansas-Pine Bluff, they can relate to a team that overcomes a bad start.
“We’re playing a team that’s a lot like us,” Peele said.