Happy to be here, ready to win: App State heads to NCAA Tournament

The Mountaineers will play a First Four game then, with a win, unbeaten Gonzaga

Donovan Gregory and Appalachian State face Norfolk State on Thursday in a play-in game with the winner facing top overall seed Gonzaga on Saturday night. (John Blackie / Pensacola News Journal via AP)

Like clockwork, every 21 years, Appalachian State makes the NCAA Tournament. The Mountaineers are college basketball’s cicadas.

In 1979, App made its first appearance in the Big Dance, losing to LSU in their first game, 71-57. Then in 2000, the Mountaineers returned, losing by 26 to No. 3 seed Ohio State.

It’s that time again, and, against all odds, App State is back.

The Mountaineers lost six of their last seven regular season games to drop to 13-11, 7-8 in the Sun Belt. Entering the conference tournament as the Eastern Division’s No. 4 seed, a NCAA bid seemed remote. App hadn’t had a four-game winning streak yet this season and hadn’t beaten four Sun Belt foes in a row since early 2015.

App then knocked off both No. 1 seeds and won two overtime games en route to a four-game sweep to the conference title and the fulfillment of its 21-year destiny.

Now the Mountaineers face even longer odds. Appalachian State is the No. 68 team in the NCAA field — that’s dead last, for those of you scoring at home.

That means a First Four game against MEAC champion Norfolk State on Thursday, with the winner earning a game against the top team in the nation — undefeated Gonzaga.

If ever a team could be excused for just being “happy to be here,” it’s this year’s App State team. And, sure enough, the Mountaineers are absolutely thrilled to be here.

Coach Dustin Kerns said he’s received more than 1,000 texts from former coaches and players, as well as fans, congratulating the team on making the tournament.

“I had a former player say, ‘Tell your guys they’re basically one of 35 guys to ever play in the NCAA Tournament from App,’” he said. “I shared that with them. ‘Think about what you guys have done.’ I don’t know if it’s quite sunk in yet.”

Kerns isn’t sure if it’s sunk in for him yet, either.

“We’re here in the bubble,” he said. “And we’re with Texas, Houston, Oregon State, Colorado. We’re all right here, together. It’s kind of weird.”

The First Four game will be held in Bloomington at Assembly Hall, home of the Indiana Hoosiers.

“Our first NCAA Tournament game, in 1979, with coach (Bobby) Cremins, was in Bloomington,” Kerns said. “Life comes full circle sometimes, in those regards.”

Cremins and his wife will be flying up for App’s game.

Kerns also heard from former App standout Alvin Gentry. “I talked to him late Tuesday night,” he said. “He was almost in tears with his excitement. … When you’ve got immense pride in your program, that’s the sign of a good program.”

It might seem that the excitement and pride would be muted by the fact that the Mountaineers need to win what amounts to a play-in game to join the “real” first round of the tournament. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

“We’re thrilled,” Kerns said. “Listen, the committee did its job. This year, a lot of regular season conference champions won their conference tournaments — a lot of them. But we’re one of 68. And our team knows how hard it is to get here. You’ve got programs like Duke and Kentucky that are not here. Indiana, and it’s their own (gym). Shoot, everybody’s good. You don’t trip down the sidewalk (and make) an NCAA Tournament. We’re thankful. We’re a program of appreciation. We’re thrilled to be part of the First Four.”

Plus, it gives App State a chance to be in the spotlight.

“This year, especially, there will be so many millions of viewers on this First Four because of last year not having a tournament,” he said. “It’s going to be a monumental moment for our country, and we’re going to be a part of it.”

Then, despite all the joy about just being here, App will have a game to win. Kerns said the Mountaineers benefit from having their conference tournament early. They have had since March 8 to bask in the joy of getting a bid and are now ready to focus on the task at hand.

“We had a chance to kind of enjoy it,” he said. “Then the message has been, ‘Let’s not just be happy to play in it. Let’s make memories. Let’s win the first game in the NCAA for App State. We’re 0-2 career as a program.’”

The team has begun watching Norfolk State film and prep for game. And the Mountaineers will be ready for Gonzaga if they advance.

“I’m very confident in our fight,” Kerns said. “We showed them video of rats fighting cats. We’ve got to develop an identity of just fighting. I’ve said since I took over, ‘Do teams hate playing App State?’”

For the first time in 21 years, teams in the Big Dance will get to hate facing the Mountaineers.