The pain of the loss in the championship game of the Big South men’s basketball tournament has begun to subside for the members of the Radford University team.
Sunday, though, they will intentionally reopen old wounds. They will do so with a faint glimmer of hope that the NCAA tournament selection committee will take into account all the Highlanders accomplished this season.
But they will watch the NCAA selection show aware their chances of receiving a berth are slim and none, and none has taken to the highlands surrounding the university.
Radford tied for the regular-season title in the Big South Conference. During the nonconference portion of their schedule, the Highlanders won at Notre Dame and Texas.
Neither had stellar seasons, but both scheduled Radford with the idea it would be an automatic win.
The Highlanders did what a team from a mid-major — maybe a low-major — conference is supposed to do. It had a challenging schedule, played Power Five conference teams on the road, won two and almost won several others.
“We should have beaten Clemson,” Radford coach Mike Jones said. “We were up 7 in the second half, then they threw one of our big guys out, and we only had two of them.
“We played great in that game. It would have been a nice one to get.”
But even if Radford had won, Jones knows it would not have mattered.
When you are a member of the Big South, there is one game you must win — the conference tournament’s championship game.
Radford was 12-4 in the Big South, 22-11 overall, and tied for the regular-season title with Campbell. The Camels won the tiebreaker and were the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament.
That is significant.
Radford reached the conference final, only to catch Gardner-Webb’s DJ Laster (34 points on 14-of-17 shooting) with the hottest of hands. Gardner-Webb won 76-65.
Gardner-Webb, the No. 4 seed in the Big South, gets the conference’s automatic bid.
To take some of the sting out of such a loss, the NCAA has mandated that the regular-season champion in these “one-bid” leagues is guaranteed a spot in the postseason NIT.
But the Highlanders don’t even get that. It goes instead to Campbell by virtue of its No. 1 seed.
“I’m not frustrated,” said Jones, a former assistant at VCU and Richmond. “As adults, when you sign up for something, you take the good with the bad. You try to affect change if you can. You lobby through the proper channels. If that’s not successful, you accept it and move on.”
There’s pressure in the ACC, Big Ten and other major conference tournaments. But if Virginia Tech, Virginia, Duke or North Carolina lose early, they leave town knowing they’re going to play in the NCAA tournament.
The real pressure is on the Radfords, Woffords, UNC Greensboros and Belmonts of the world. With rare exceptions, they know their season depends on winning the conference tournament.
“You could be a 12th seed, get hot and win the conference tournament,” Jones said. “It’s hard to win three or four games in a row when everything is riding on it.
“Nobody cares how many you’ve won against the high majors, only that you won your conference tournament.”
Meanwhile, such teams as Clemson, N.C. State, Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi and a handful of middling Pac 12 teams are on the NCAA tournament “bubble.”
Year after year, this is the refrain of people who see these lower-level teams play and are familiar with their quality: This isn’t fair.
Jones, Radford’s coach for eight seasons, deals with the inequity.
“I went for a run,” he said. “For half an hour, I didn’t have to think about it. Thinking about breathing is the most important thing at that point.
“I have a great wife who takes some of the depression away from me.”
Jones’ younger son Miles helped Radford High School win a state title this season. His older son Nate just missed an NCAA appearance when Colgate beat Bucknell for the Patriot League’s automatic bid.
“We’re blessed,” Jones said. “I’m a Christian and know that while worldly things are important, there are things a lot more important than basketball. I can handle the adversity.”
Still, it seems only fair that schools with every advantage and that get all the breaks should have to handle the adversity Jones, his players and many of their colleagues almost always face this time of year.