OMAHA, Neb. – Kyle O’Quinn has long been a known commodity in the after-thought of a conference in which he plays.
Now everybody seems to know his name.
The gregarious 6-foot-10, 240-pound center is the face of the 15th-seeded Norfolk State Spartans. That’s the lovable little engine of a team that shocked second-seeded Missouri in the NCAA tournament Friday and, as O’Quinn said in the afterglow, messed up a lot of folks’ brackets – and, he jokingly added, even his own.
They’ve captured the imagination of the nation, and everyone wants to know if O’Quinn and Norfolk State (26-9) can do it again today against the tournament-tested Florida Gators (24-10).
A No. 15 seed has never made it to the round of 16.
“When you’ve made history and continue to try to make history, it’s kind of hard to refocus,” O’Quinn said Saturday. “We know what’s on the line. We know what we can do. We know the good feeling we had last night. We don’t want it to end.”
Florida has made the NCAA tournament 12 times in coach Billy Donovan’s 16 years as coach, won a couple national titles and reached a regional final a year ago.
The Gators, who beat Virginia 71-45 on Friday, have seen this story before and know Norfolk State is going to have a home-court advantage at the CenturyLink Center.
“Everyone loves the Cinderella story, underdog stories. Even if you’re neutral, you just love those stories,” said Florida center Patric Young. “They love to see the underdogs like George Mason and VCU make runs to the Final Four. We’d like to be the team to stop that run and not be a part of that run.”
O’Quinn plays, and embraces, the starring role for the Spartans.
Until Friday the senior was a virtual unknown outside the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, where he was player of the year and two-time defensive player of the year.
He introduced himself to college basketball fandom at large with his 26 points and 14 rebounds against Missouri. It was his 20th double-double of the season and 39th in 67 games.
“He completely dominated the game on the glass,” said Young, who will guard O’Quinn. “When I finally saw him on film, I saw how skilled and talented he is, and he’s a really good defender, really physical. He overpowers a lot of guys he goes up against.”
Adding to O’Quinn’s appeal were those postgame quips where he talked about bracket busting, President Obama’s mistake in picking against the Spartans and even how he watched cheerleaders dance during timeouts.
“Once in a lifetime feeling,” he said. “A win has never brought so much joy to a player, to a family.”