As basketball prognosticators, big upsets throw a real wrench into what we’re trying to do. When we’re wrong about something we say publicly, it’s no fun. But as basketball fans, upsets are the best. Single-elimination tournaments are built for the crazy and unexpected, the Cinderella, the one-in-a-million – it’s why we watch the games and no team has defined the spirit of March Madness like the Tuskegee University Golden Tigers.
The Golden Tigers earned their Tournament berth with an 88-80 overtime win in the Southern Intercollegiate Conference Tournament Championship. If it wasn’t for the automatic bid, they probably wouldn’t be dancing at all. In fact, of all Tournament teams, only 15-13 Harding had a worse regular-season record than the 18-11 Golden Tigers. So when they matched up against (BennettRank 28) one-seed Florida Southern in the first round, the only people who thought Tuskegee could win were in the Tuskegee locker room.
But if you couldn’t tell from the heavy foreshadowing, they did win. They hit 81% of their free throws in the upset – including 7 of 8 in the final 22 seconds. Clutch. Senior point guard Elliot Dean scored a season-high 31 in the 98-95 win, and the Golden Tigers moved on to the second round as the highest remaining seed in the Tournament. We had Tuskegee ranked 225 out of 306 D2 teams when the Tourney started.
In the second round – they faced 4-seed (#43) North Alabama, and again came out on top. Six Tuskegee players scored in double figures and for the second straight game, they shot over 50% from the field as a team. The first game could be chalked up to surprise – the top-seed didn’t take it seriously and the underdog came out with fire. But what about the second? How can a team justify not bringing their A-game to the second round of the NCAA Tournament?
North Alabama Senior Wes Long said after the game, “It was just tough for us to match Tuskegee’s fire. We just didn’t have enough intensity.” So it was on to the Sub-regional Finals for Tuskegee, the Sweet 16, where no team can be taken lightly.
This time, the Golden Tigers met #44 Delta State and turned coincidence into trend with their third-straight upset. Just like in the first two games, they shot over 50% from the field – but unlike the first two games, the final score wasn’t close. “Everything is coming together, both on and off the court,” said Head Coach Leon Douglas after the 80-59 victory, “I have an awesome group of young men. The kids have totally bought into everything we are doing. To beat a team like that, by 22  points, was an awesome job by my players. We’ve done a great job to this point, but the job is not complete.”
Tuskegee jumped 61 spots in our ranking to 164 by virtue of their first two wins, and will likely jump again in Monday’s rankings – from here on out no upset will be as big as the first. But just because it won’t be a surprise, doesn’t mean it will be easy. The Golden Tigers will play Western Sub-region No. 1 seed Metro State in Evansville, Indiana on Tuesday for a spot in the D2 Final Four. #9 Metro State only lost one game this year, and hasn’t been out of our top ten since week two.
That’s the caliber of competition Tuskegee will face from here on out – in our newest rankings, the teams remaining are ranked 1, 2, 7, 9, 14, 16, 24, and 164 – Tuskegee. As long as they’re still in the tournament, we’re gonna pick them to lose – not that it’s phased them so far. Us picking against them doesn’t mean we’re rooting against them though. It’s hard not to root for a team that destroys brackets and reminds everyone why the Tournament is so fun. So if you’re looking for advice on who to pick – not Tuskegee. But if you’re looking for advice on enjoying the Tournament – forget your bracket and enjoy the show. Go Tuskegee!