“Everybody roots for David, no one roots for Goliath.”
This weekend, we’ve all witnessed the first 15 seeded team reach the Sweet 16 in NCAA Tourney history as the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles advanced, defeating Georgetown and San Diego State. LaSalle, a 13 seed, will join them as well. Recently, the number of small teams or “mid majors” have enjoyed success with George Mason reaching the Final Four in 2006, Virginia Commonwealth University reaching the Final Four in 2011 and Butler University reaching back to back championship games in 2010 and 2011. And people around the nation rejoiced because everyone loves an underdog.
Except if the school you root for calls Lawrence, Chapel Hill, Durham, Westwood or Lexington home.
I’ve often wondered why the Unforgettables are, in fact, unforgettable. Yes, that was the team that brought Kentucky back to national prominence, but there was something else. For the first time, and I dare say only time in Kentucky’s storied history, the Wildcats were an underdog that season, up to the epic Elite Eight game against the Blue Devils of Duke University. We’ve seen the Laettner shot. We’ve debated how much better the Sean Woods shot was. We remember Thomas Hill crying. We remember Mashburn being the best player on the court for most of the game. But what we remember most fondly about that team was that they weren’t supposed to be there. Kentucky wasn’t supposed to be back. Sports Illustrated ran the famous “Kentucky Shame” cover. Pundits and college basketball analysts said that the Cats couldn’t return… and they did.
And for that one night in Philadelphia, the University of Kentucky Wildcats were underdogs.
In the years following, I can’t recall a game where the Cats won where I was 100% surprised. Oh, there have been the championship games in 1996, 1998 and 2012, with the 1998 run providing the most improbable wins. But at no point did people say, “Kentucky won? I never would have thought!” Even with this year’s team which underachieved for long stretches of the season, the wins over Florida and Missouri weren’t surprises, that was how well the team was supposed to play.
I’ve watched the small conference basketball tournaments on ESPN over the years, and “I’ve thought, what would it be like to just be happy to make the dance?” Although, admittedly, I probably would have danced for joy myself had Kentucky been announced this past Selection Sunday. But those teams get to play the “nobody believed in us” card that Kentucky coaches, from Rupp to Calipari, just don’t get to play. Because the Big Blue Nation does believe in them, almost to a fault.
Everyone loves an underdog, from the New York Jets winning Super Bowl III, to the 1980 US Men’s hockey team, to Buster Douglass knocking Mike Tyson out. But for every David, there’s a Goliath. A team or person that didn’t win because the underdog did the impossible. And even when Goliath isn’t as fierce or as formidable as he’s perceived to be, there’s still joy in the little guy winning. Just asks the folks at Robert Morris.