Already heartbroken after his team’s name didn’t pop up during the NCAA tournament selection show, UNC Greensboro basketball coach Wes Miller checked his phone Sunday evening and received another punch to the gut.
Someone with the NCAA had tweeted that the Spartans had been the very last bubble team left out of the field of 68.
Had Oregon not upset top-seeded Washington in the Pac-12 title game on Saturday night, UNC Greensboro would be preparing for a First Four game in Dayton right now. The Ducks instead claimed the Pac-12’s automatic bid, sending the Huskies into the at-large pool, shrinking the NCAA tournament bubble by a spot and dooming the Spartans to the NIT.
“Seeing that was like salt on the wound, at first,” Miller said. “You cringe thinking, ‘Man, we were that close to making history and doing something that seemed almost impossible 3 or 4 years ago at this program.’ You’re one spot away, one result during the week away from being in the NCAA tournament. At the time, that was really hard to swallow.”
Coming so close and falling short would have been difficult for any program, but it’s especially tough for one outside college basketball’s power structure.
UNC Greensboro doesn’t play in a league that sends half its teams to the NCAA tournament every year. In fact, the Southern Conference has never received an at-large bid, not even a decade ago when Stephen Curry led Davidson to a 27-win season the year after taking the Wildcats to the Elite Eight.
An at-large NCAA tournament bid is so difficult to attain for teams at UNC Greensboro’s level that Miller insists he didn’t even consider the possibility last Monday night when the Spartans fell to Wofford in the Southern Conference tournament title game. Only after friends asked about it the following day did Miller start researching how UNC Greensboro’s resume compared to that of other teams on the bubble.
What Miller soon realized was that his team had a case. Not an airtight one certainly, but a case nonetheless.
At 28-6, UNC Greensboro had a much gaudier record than power-conference bubble teams but fewer marquee wins. The Spartans only played two games against power-conference teams all season, falling by six at SEC champ LSU and by 17 at SEC runner-up Kentucky after pushing the Wildcats for 35 minutes.
An unusually strong Southern Conference also offered opportunities for quality wins thanks to strong non-league performances from the league’s four best teams. UNC Greensboro went 4-1 against Furman and East Tennessee State but lost to eventual league champ Wofford all three times they played.
That five of the Spartans’ six losses came against top 15 teams in the NET rankings certainly boosted their case. It also couldn’t have hurt that the power-conference teams on the bubble all had flawed resumes too, from Indiana’s 15 losses, to NC State’s 353rd-ranked non-conference schedule, to Temple’s lack of noteworthy wins.
“As I started doing my research and learning more about the other bubble teams, I felt like our case got stronger and stronger,” Miller said.” By Saturday, I actually thought we had a really good chance to be in the tournament.”
All of Miller’s friends and family took great interest in results from other conference tournaments, celebrating when another bubble team lost or groaning if one notched a meaningful win. Miller purposefully didn’t partake in that to avoid any bad karma, but he did razz assistant coach Kyle Bankhead after his alma mater’s WCC title game loss to Saint Mary’s reduced the number of spots available for bubble teams by one.
“Gonzaga knocked us out of the NCAA tournament last year,” Miller joked with Bankhead, “and maybe they did it to us again this year.”
When Selection Sunday arrived at last, UNC Greensboro players and coaches gathered at Miller’s home to watch. The uncertainty was a wholly new experience for Miller, whose previous NCAA tournament appearances were never in doubt as a player at North Carolina or as the coach of the Spartans last year.
“My adrenaline was pumping about as hard as I could ever imagine and I was just sitting there,” Miller said. “We have a team with a ton of personality. When we’re together, nobody ever shuts up, but for that 40 minutes, even during the commercial breaks, it was dead quiet.”
Nervous silence turned to tearful anguish by the time CBS unveiled the final quadrant of the bracket without mentioning UNC Greensboro. Miller described the Spartans as “emotionally devastated” — and that was before they learned they were the last team left out of the field.
Disappointment coursed through Miller all Sunday night, but a funny thing happened by the time he awoke Monday morning. No longer was he wistful or angry. All he felt instead was pride.
Pride that he had resurrected a program that went 7-24 the season before he arrived. Pride that UNC Greensboro had come tantalizingly close to landing an at-large bid from the Southern Conference. Pride that he was fortunate enough to still be coaching his team in mid-March, albeit in the NIT.
“To go from where we were three or four years ago to being the last team left out of the NCAA tournament, I’m really proud of how our program has grown,” Miller said. “I have a lot of buddies who have had tough years with their teams. You sit there and you talk to them, and I know they would do anything to be playing in the NIT right now.”
Miller scoffs at the idea that it will be tough to motivate his team for Tuesday night’s NIT opener against Campbell. The NIT is a big platform for a program like UNC Greensboro that doesn’t get many cracks at marquee teams or chances to play on national TV.
A question about whether he’ll still watch this year’s NCAA tournament also draws a chuckle from Miller. Not only will he still be watching, he’s annoyed there’s no college basketball Monday night for him to turn on.
“The NCAA tournament is one of the coolest things in all of sports,” he said. “Participating in it is one of the thrills of my life as a player and a coach, but if I can’t participate, you better believe I’m going to watch it.”
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