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Mountain Hawk Madness

You know by now that Lehigh is going to the Big Dance.

You know by now that they're facing off against Duke in Greensboro, North Carolina on Friday ay 7PM, to be seen nationally on CBS.

You knew, too, that there would be Madness surrounding the trip to the NCAA tournament.

But quite this much Madness?

When Lehigh faced off against Kansas two years ago, Lehigh's odds of winning the tournament were put at "a Googleplex-to-one".  Literally.

This time around, though, I can tell you this - it's not a Googleplex anymore.  And a whole lot of fans around the Lehigh Valley think maybe, just maybe, this team can bring down Mike Krzyzewski's team on the 20 year anniversary of Christian Laettner's shot and only two years removed from beating Butler for their most recent championship.


Two years ago, the Kansas media didn't know a heck of a lot about Lehigh, and frankly, didn't want to learn much about them, either.

The only sacrificial lamb now is 16th-seeded Lehigh against No. 1 Kansas.

Cool, confident, casual, cocky — any of those words describe Kansas at times, though at some point in the NCAA Tournament the Jayhawks better bring more than their 'C' game.

And as far as the national media were concerned, if President Barack Obama had picked Kansas to win it all, that was enough for them.  After all, he picked North Carolina in 2009, and he was right. Saying that Lehigh's guards were "not overly athletic", ESPN's Joe Lunardi predicted that folks should "look for this game to be over at halftime."

Not... exactly.

Lehigh's 12-4 run to lead off the game, and their lead through most of the first half, had folks like Dan Wetzel and Bill Simmons thinking about the "bracket nuclear bomb" that would have gone off had Lehigh upset the highly-rated Jayhawks.

Lehigh did end up running out of gas in a 90-74 defeat, but did very much gain respect nationally, especially their two fab freshmen, G C.J. McCollum and F Gabe Knutson, for their gutty performance and scare they put into Kansas pickers all over the nation.

(Kansas would later lose to Northern Iowa, 69-67, in one of the best second-round games in the tournament.  Whether it was partially due to Lehigh's wearing down of the Jayhawks in Round Two, it was difficult to say - but not for Lehigh fans.)

Was there madness in the run-up to that 2009 tournament game?  There was, but the Madness was focused on one thing, and one thing only: disrespect.

Lehigh was given no shot to win the game at all.  When tickets went on sale for the game in nearby Oklahoma City, folks weren't swarming the Lehigh ticket office - it was expected that a small, devoted following of folks close to the university would go, and Lehigh people would tune in on their TVs, but they would watch the game and just be "happy to be there"

"Let's make 99.9% of America rip up their brackets tonight, shall we?" was my own rallying cry in 2010.

*****

What a difference a couple of years makes.

Tickets for the game in Greensboro, NC, sold out in two minutes online, according to Rich Haas of the Lehigh athletics office.

Many Mountain Hawk fans are going to take a plane, train, or automobile to Greensboro on Friday to see if Lehigh will make history - and many more are making plans to watch the game in local watering holes.

That's because they know this team is that good.

C.J., whose legend has been growing by leaps and bounds since that fateful Thursday in 2010, is very much a player that is on the national radar, thanks to Lehigh's games against St. John's, Michigan State and Iowa State this year and high praise from none other than Mike Krzyzewski himself.   “He's one of the better guards in the country," he said.  "He'd be an outstanding guard in our league. He's an NBA prospect.”


And on XM radio today with Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, he said this:

"I think the mindset of the Lehigh team is not hoping that they stay with us, but they said they can beat us. They are a very confident team with a player who gives them even more confidence in McCollum. I don’t think their mindset is lets hang with them for 4, 8, 12 or 20 minutes; they are not afraid of us so we will play a very confident, high-scoring team Friday night. It will be a tough game for us, we know that. We have a lot of respect for Lehigh. If I was going into the game with [Shane] Battier, [Shelden] Williams, [Carlos] Boozer, [Mike] Dunleavy and [Chris] Duhon, I wouldn’t be as concerned, because I wasn’t concerned about any game with those guys."

This team isn't just one guard and five nobodies, either.  Inarguably one of the big reasons Lehigh is travelling to Greensboro is the play of Gabe Knutson, whose fearless play against Bucknell set the stage for Lehigh's exciting Patriot League championship, while G Mackey McKnight, F John Adams, F Justin Maneri and G B.J. Bailey have been clutch performers to close out the season. 

Their defensive pressure has been one of the more unsung stories of the Patriot League this year, and there's every reason to believe that it will give Duke problems as well.

In addition to these matchups, furthermore, there's also a very large injury concern with one of their top players, F Ryan Kelly:

Duke’s first full day of NCAA Tournament preparation included continuing to deal with the loss of a key player.

Junior forward Ryan Kelly, who missed the ACC Tournament with a sprained right foot, did not practice Monday as Duke began working toward Friday’s NCAA South Regional game with Lehigh (7:15 p.m., WRAL).

While Kelly continues to progress, the medical staff has not cleared him for full activities, Duke associate head coach Chris Collins said Monday night.

It's a very far cry from the cocky Kansas team that Lehigh faced in 2010 - though there's sometimes a hint of, um, big confidence from this team as well from freshman G Austin Rivers:

"I’m looking at the teams ahead of us and I’m excited. Of course, it starts off first with Lehigh, but after them, you just kind of look — just to see, if you do win, who you’d play, and there’s a lot of good teams.”

While Rivers, and most of America, still thinks Lehigh is going down on Friday night - 97.9%, at last look, in ESPN's brackets - nowhere do you see the jokes of "sacrificial lambs" and no shot at winning.

Make no mistake, Duke is a terrific team.  They are great from 3-point land, notably with G Seth Curry.  Rivers is a premier player, and underneath, the brothers Mason and Miles Plumlee
can make teams pay.

But in the Lehigh Valley, there's something that hasn't ever showed its head in terms of men's basketball - confidence.

Everywhere around here is a feeling this Mountain Hawk team is a special team - that might be able to be the fifth 15 seed in history to upset a 2 seed.

Is it Madness to think that this is a matchup that Lehigh can win?

It sure doesn't feel like it.

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