LEWISBURG, Pa. – We are talking about Kansas. Not South Carolina. Not Ole Miss. Not even Syracuse or Arizona, which used to have a history of early NCAA flameouts before they wound up winning it all.
We are talking about a Kansas team that featured a senior class that had been to two Final Fours and an Elite Eight and was led by a first team All-American in Wayne Simien. We are talking about Kansas, undoubtedly one of the top five programs of all time.
And Bucknell beat them. Patriot League Bucknell, a team with just one senior that had gone 14-15 the season before. Bucknell, way out here on a bucolic campus amidst the hills and forests of Central Pennsylvania, a program with its priorities so in order that its best player (Chris McNaughton) missed the start of Monday's practice because he was finishing an electrical engineering lab.
So was Bucknell's 64-63 victory over Kansas in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament the greatest first-round upset in March Madness history?
"Of course I am going to say that," said Bucknell guard Charles Lee.
"I guess I am a little biased but I'll go with it," said guard Kevin Bettencourt.
OK, so maybe those two weren't the ones to ask, but it is a question worth asking. Since 1985 when the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams, has there been a better first-round upset?
Since a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed, there are plenty of other contenders. Remember, first round only.
- 1986. No. 14 seed Cleveland State beats No. 3 Indiana, a Bob Knight-coached team that would go on to win the NCAA title in 1987.
- 1991. No. 15 seed Richmond over No. 2 Syracuse, the first-ever 15-beats-2 in tourney history.
- 1993. No. 15 seed Santa Clara over No. 2 Arizona, one of too numerous to mention Wildcat disasters before they became tourney tough.
- 1996. No. 13 seed Princeton beats No. 4 UCLA, the defending national champion, 43-41, courtesy of a back door layup just five days after legendary coach Pete Carrill announced his retirement.
- 1997. No. 15 seed Coppin State over No. 2 South Carolina. Coppin, coached by the great Fang Mitchell, almost beats No. 7 Texas in the second round.
- 1998. No. 13 seed Valparaiso over No. 4 Ole Miss, courtesy of the famed buzzer-beating Bryce Drew jump shot.
- 1999. No. 14 seed Weber State beats No. 3 North Carolina when Weber's Harold "The Show" Arceneaux scored 36 points.
- 2001. No. 15 seed Hampton, which didn't become Division I until 1995, out of the MEAC, beating No. 2 Iowa State, led by superstar guard Jamaal Tinsley.
- 2005. No. 13 seed Vermont bests No. 4 Syracuse, the key play coming from a deep 3-pointer by T.J. Sorrentine.
And we could go on. All are great, the fabric of the sport. But if you are talking greatest, some are easy to eliminate. Arizona and Syracuse are so prone to first-round failure, especially back in the day, that their losses were only slightly surprising. South Carolina and Ole Miss were paper SEC high-seeds.
That Cleveland State team was one of the great (or not so great, depending on your viewpoint) outlaw teams, led by coach Kevin Mackey, who was eventually fired when he was caught strolling out of a crack house with a prostitute on his arm.
Princeton over UCLA was pretty cool, but those Bruins were classic underachievers that hadn't listened to a word Jim Harrick said all year. As fun as Vermont was last year, they were probably better than a 13 seed, and there was that Syracuse thing, again.
In my opinion, it comes down to Hampton, the underfunded historical black college, Weber State, the out-of-nowhere team with a single superstar and Bucknell. If I had to pick an all-time greatest, I'd probably lean toward Hampton, no offense to the Bison.
But it is a heck of a debate.
"The Valpo game, you always see on TV," said Lee.
"Santa Clara over Arizona or the Arceneaux from Weber State game, those stand out," said Bettencourt.
"Vermont beating Syracuse was big. I watched that just before our game on a TV in the hallway, talking with (Kansas coach) Bill Self," Bettencourt smiled. "I don't know if he wanted to talk after our game."
To the victors go the smiles, one reason these are heady times for Bucknell.
The Bison are still flying high from an historic upset that will go down in NCAA tournament lore, something they are slowly realizing. "A couple of weeks after the tournament I flicked on ESPN Classic and they had our game against Kansas on," said Bettencourt.
And they are still relishing that people now actually know what Bucknell is.
"I am from Massachusetts and no one had ever heard of Bucknell," said Bettencourt. "Now I wear my Bucknell gear and everyone knows."
Not to mention that they are looking forward to a new season where they return all five starters and all but one player from the 23-10 history-makers. So beware the Bison.
"If anything, the kids have great perspective," said 12th-year coach Pat Flannery. "We've talked to them about no entitlements."
Which is different from having no memories. Some kids play college basketball expecting national fame, NCAA tournament glory and, eventually, professional riches. Some play in a bus league for fun and a biology degree.
Bucknell got its shot at greatness, got its shot at historic Kansas, got its shot at One Shining Moment and delivered.
They can't ever take that away from them, because you can certainly argue no one has ever done it better.