Photo Credit: Justin Wolford/Colgate Athletics
The Colgate Raiders are, for the most part, no strangers to the Big Dance.
In 2018, the Raiders, then a No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament, came ever so close to busting brackets in the round of 64. After trailing by 12 points at halftime to second-seeded Tennessee, the Raiders tied the game midway through the second half, before being outscored 25-18 over the final 10 minutes.
Despite the heartbreaking loss, Colgate head coach Matt Langel thinks his team learned something from matching up against Tennessee.
“A big part of being the team who hasn’t played as much length, and speed, and athleticism, and high-level talent across the board is adjusting to the pace of the game, the size of the opposition,” said Langel. “I think this group, certainly those who experienced this a couple years ago, that helps, just like playing Syracuse in the regular season.”
Despite the loss, the Raiders found a positive from the game. Then-sophomore guard Jordan Burns led the Raiders – and the game – in scoring with 32 points. In doing so, Burns hit 12 of his 20 shots, including eight of his 13 three-pointers.
“It was great having that type of outing, having my team behind me, constantly giving me the ball and feeding me confidence,” Burns said. “I think it did fuel my confidence going into the next year, and I think it’s continued to roll over.”
Now a senior, Burns and the Raiders are back in the NCAA Tournament and, this time, are looking to pull off the upset against another SEC opponent.
The Raiders – a No. 14 seed in the tournament – are pitted against No. 3 seed Arkansas. The Razorbacks finished the season with a 22-6 record, including wins over Alabama and Missouri in conference play.
Much like they did against Tennessee, the Raiders will rely on the play of Burns. Over the course of the season, the senior guard was critical to his team, averaging a team-high 17 points and 5.4 assists per game. Burns earned Patriot League Player of the Year honors for his performance.
Players like Burns are almost a dying breed for mid-major college basketball teams. Players with such a stature at the mid-major level either go pro or transfer before their senior years, looking for larger opportunities to prove themselves.
“We’re lucky,” Langel explained. “In today’s day and age, I think a lot of guys like him [would have] said, ‘you know, people missed out on me. I’m going to take my game and go somewhere else’.”
Burns, however, never thought about leaving. Despite some interest in going pro, Burns chose to stay at Colgate.
“I feel like at Colgate, I had a job that I wanted to get done,” Burns said about the decision. “I feel like transferring up for me wasn’t going to show people how much better I was as a player.”
The move has seemingly paid off for both Burns and Colgate. Burns’ high-level play has the Raiders’ offense clicking to the tune of 86 points per game and have them primed as a potential ‘Cinderella’ team in the NCAA Tournament. This, despite recent struggles by No. 14 seeds against No. 3 seeds.
The last 3-14 upset came in 2016, when Stephen F. Austin defeated West Virginia. To date, the longest tournament drought without such an upset is four years, coming between 2000 and 2004. All-time, No. 14 seeds are just 21-119 against No. 3 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
Much like Stephen F. Austin, though, the Raiders are playing some of their best basketball late. In specific, they’ve been far more efficient from deep of late. The Raiders shot 48.3% from distance in the Patriot League Tournament, hitting 30 of their 62 attempts. In the conference championship game, an 85-72 win for Colgate over Loyola-Maryland, the Raiders made 14 of their 23 attempts from three.
“It sounds cliche, and it’s kind of obvious, but I don’t care who you are, if you’re going to win in this tournament and achieve your dreams, you have to make shots,” said Langel. “Nobody does well in March if they’re not making shots. And certainly, the way we’re built, we have to make shots.”
Outside of the shooting, Colgate’s fast-paced offense makes it an intriguing team. According to Bart Torvik, its adjusted tempo – which attempts to show how fast teams play – of 71.9 ranks 34th in the nation. In total, the Raiders average 74 possessions per game.
With the faster offense (the Raiders averaged 70 possessions in 2019), the Raiders have also played with a deeper rotation. After only playing eight players in the NCAA Tournament loss to Tennessee, the Raiders have played upwards of 10 players on any given night.
“I traditionally have not played 10 players, more like 6 1/2 or seven. Maybe an eighth guy gets a couple of minutes,” said Langel. “We’ve got a lot of deserving guys.”
Despite all the makings of a ‘Cinderella’ team, it isn’t always that easy or controllable. Sometimes, the dreaded L-word of luck has to come into play.
“It takes a lot. It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of concentration, a lot of studying the other team and just a bit of luck, letting the ball go in the basket a little bit,” Burns said. “I think that’s a big thing. Obviously, you got to make shots. But I think all those things just go into it.
“When you get into the game, you got to make sure that you stay focused on every single possession,” Burns continued. “You can’t get ahead of yourself trying to think what will happen in the next half or in the next 10 minutes. You just got to focus on each possession and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Regardless of what it takes, Langel and his coaching staff knows that his team will be ready. That’s regardless of which Goliath stands in front of them.
“When everything ended in such rapid fashion and they vacated campus, and got back to their homes, the first thing they all thought about – once they knew their immediate families and they were healthy and safe – was ‘what do we need to do to get back together to try and do whatever we can to get ready for the future?’” Langel explained. “That’s been their mentality for a long stretch here. And I think that continues to be their mentality, ‘what is the next opportunity we have and what do we need to do?’ I don’t think it’s house money.”