SALT LAKE CITY—The drum-banging pep bands, the players shouting and clapping in the hallway before taking the court, the fanatical supporters from afar, and the nonpartisan locals cheering for an upset—such are the ingredients of this festival of hope.
“You have to think about it: We are one of the best 64 teams in the country at this time,” Northeastern junior guard Shawn Occeus said on the eve of the 13th-seeded Huskies’ opening game in the NCAA Tournament against the No. 4 Kansas Jayhawks. “We get to play for a national championship. That is a dream.”
The Huskies are seeking their first victory in the Big Dance since 1984, when they scraped by Long Island University 90-87. Over the past 34 years, which have been barren for Northeastern, the Jayhawks have gone 84-31 in the NCAA Tournament (including 31-2 in opening games), while reaching nine Final Fours and earning two national titles.
David should have had no hope of bringing down Goliath. But here are the underdog Huskies (23-10), with faith drawn not only from their own hard-earned perseverance, but also from the single-elimination format of March Madness that has tended to reward teams that score from the 3-point line—teams like Northeastern, which ranks 16th nationally in 3-point percentage.
The Huskies are going to be focused defensively on Dedric Lawson, the NBA-ready, 6-foot-9-inch Kansas forward who threatened to tower over Northeastern’s perimeter defenders. Not only did Lawson lead the Big 12 conference with 19.1 points per game and 10.3 rebounds, but he also turned out to be a terrific passer who kept the Jayhawks (25-9) in contention after they suffered key personnel losses following their No. 1 national ranking in December.
While the size and skills of Lawson, a redshirted junior, causes worry for Northeastern, the inexperience of his teammates is a source of hope. Lawson’s fellow starters are all freshmen; whereas the Huskies’ rotation features no freshmen. For all of their Big Dance pedigree, the Jayhawks have only two players with tournament experience. Which means, in terms of nerves, this matchup should be even.
Around lunchtime on Thursday, as the Huskies entered Vivint Smart Home Arena, the high-rise NBA stadium that is more than three times the size of Matthews Arena back home in Boston, the opening game between No. 5 Auburn and No. 12 New Mexico State was underway. The thumping sounds from the court bled through the locker-room wall like heartbeats. Their long-awaited moment was here: Forty minutes to make good on lifetimes of work and dreams.