It was a March Madness just like any other - or so it seemed.
Kansas sat at No. 1 in the RPI. On March 18th, they were about to play an NCAA tournament game in Oklahoma City, at the Ford Center - a place they knew well, as the home of leaguemate Oklahoma State. They had to wait past 9:30 PM - after Northern Iowa would finish their first round game, of course - to play a Patsy, if you will: the Patriot League champion, a team with no expectations for a win.
Or did they?
On March 18th, 2010, Lehigh will play Kansas for a chance to shock the world in Oklahoma City. But on March 18th, 2005, Bucknell played Kansas for a chance to shock the world - and did, 65-64. (more)
When I say that most of America just put Kansas in the second round of their brackets and didn't give it one ounce of thought, I mean it. Kansas had been scared in the first round a few times but always won - 21 straight times, to be exact. It didn't matter that Kansas limped into the tournament, and there were questions about the health of some of their starters: they're Kansas.
And the Patriot League didn't exactly give folks a very good reason to have much hope either. Going into the 2005 game, the Patriot League had no wins in the NCAA men's tournament, though there were some close calls. As a 14th seed, no 14 seed had beaten a 3 seed since 1999 when Weber State (and G Harold Arceneaux) knocked off North Carolina.
But that didn't faze the Bison. Head Coach Pat Flannery had a plan he had been executing all year: and while he knew it would take their best game, he knew it was possible and didn't back down.
He knew he would have to limit Kansas' possessions and make them earn everything they got. Players like G Abe Badmus would have to do a lot of pressuring their guards - and gain possessions off of missed shots. G Kevin Bettencourt - would need to not only do a great job of guarding the perimeter and limiting them to 2's, he'd need to hit a lot of 3's himself. And F Charles Lee and C Chris MacNaughton would have to play as tall as first team Big XII F Wayne Simien in order to have a chance.
And they did.
At first, it looked like it might get out of hand early when Kansas leapt to a 5-0 lead. But Bettencourt would score seven points and Lee would add a 3 in the early going to give Bucknell their first lead - and the Bison would control the possessions and hold the lead for over 13 more minutes in the first half.
A behind-the-back bounce pass for G John Griffin to F Donald Brown for an emphatic dunk would give the Bison a 22-14 lead - and cause the Ford center to go very, very quiet. (Except for Northern Iowa's band, who graciously filled in as Bucknell's cheering section when the Panthers were eliminated by Wisconsin in the earlier game.)
Kansas was Kansas, however, and weren't held down long. They closed the half out on a 10-0 run themselves - including some rare fastbreak points - as they went up 31-28 at halftime. Simien kept the rock chalk Jayhawks chant going with an early basket to make the score 33-28 - until Bettencounrt, who simply refused to go away, hit an emphatic 3 to signal that Bucknell wasn't going away. An 11-4 run - again, by limiting possessions to one shot and then converting on the other end - Bucknell was back up 39-37.
Some of the country didn't see the first half of the Bucknell game even when they had a shocking 8 point lead. With the score tied midway through the second half, almost the entire country now saw Bucknell in their attempt to shock the world.
In a way, Flannery's gameplan was fiendishly simple. Limit Kansas to one shot, control possession, don't turn over the ball and score on the other end. And it worked in a frantic second half with five lead changes and four ties. Over the limit in fouls early, Kansas made its last field goal with 8:44 to play in the game but converted 15 of 16 from the line over that stretch.
From here, Bucknell's account of the game can take over:
The Bison seemed to have the game in hand when Badmus hit two free throws with 1:22 to play for a 62-57 lead. Michael Lee was fouled on an offensive rebound to make it 62-59, then Bucknell, which committed only nine turnovers all night, committed what might have been a costly error when Lee mishandled a pass near midcourt, then intentionally fouled Lee with 53.7 seconds left.
Lee made two more from the stripe, then Badmus fouled out hand-checking a driving F Keith Langford with 25.4 ticks left. Langford made both charity tosses, and stunningly Kansas had a 63-62 lead.
The Bison elected not to use a timeout and went into the post to McNaughton. The sophomore, who was 7-for-8 from the floor in the Patriot League championship game win over Holy Cross and 6-for-7 against Kansas, spun to his left into the paint and banked in a seven-foot jump hook with 10.5 seconds left.
"We wanted to go inside," said McNaughton. "I caught the ball in the low post and somehow I had to get it in. I don't know how it went in, but it just did and that's all we needed."
You could not get a more thrilling few minutes of basketball. Kansas would have one last shot to beat the Bison - but Simien's shot bounced out, F Darren Mastropaolo would celebrate, and Bucknell would be etched in tournament history forever.
What lessons do Lehigh take from this 2005 game on the same date at the same place in a different year?
First of all - Kansas the program is not unbeatable. The same head coach from 2005, Bill Self, is coaching the Jayhawks now. Kansas is No. 1 in the RPI - as it was in 2005. But that didn't matter once the game had tipped off. After that, it was 5-on-5.
Second of all - controlling tempo is crucial to success. For Bucknell, that meant a slowdown game, but for Lehigh it can mean an up-tempo game with ways to get multiple scorers open for points. Decide on the tempo you want and control that tempo - don't let it go. Don't play a game that doesn't favor you.
Third - turnovers are like candy to the bigger-name opponents. You have to take care of the ball to have a shot at the win. Control what you can control, and that's taking care of the ball.
And finally - limiting Kansas to one shot and done. It worked for Bucknell; it can work for Lehigh, too.
(Many thanks to frequent Patriot League message board guy bison137 for his invaluable help in bringing this piece together.)