UPDATED: 11:03 a.m. EDT, Dec. 17 — It’s not a fluke! Black college basketball has continued to upset heavily favored opponents in a level of competition that is dominated by predominately white institutions. The latest major program to fall to an HBCU was Portland University, whose men’s basketball team lost to the Grambling State University Tigers on Saturday.
While not traditionally a powerhouse team, the Portland Pilots play in the West Coast Conference, which, with a former top-ranked team in Gonzaga University, is much more competitive league than Grambling’s all-HBCU Southwest Athletic Conference. Another HBCU will get its shot at Portland this week when the Florida A&M University Rattlers travel to Oregon to play the Pilots on Friday afternoon.
College basketball is nothing without the underdog team that defies the odds and excels in the face of adversity on its way to becoming the so-called darlings of the game. But for many years, at least when it came to teams from historically Black colleges (HBCUs), the underdog teams rarely if ever emerged with an upset victory over their opponents from major programs at predominately white institutions (PWIs).
But in case you haven’t heard, a new day is upon us, with several HBCU teams already leaving their upset-minded mark on unsuspecting teams from major conferences during this young season that isn’t even a month old. The most noteworthy of them all, so far, came Sunday when the Texas Southern Tigers upset the 18th-ranked squad from the University of Oregon, which has a surefire lottery pick in Bol Bol, who has dazzled NBA scouts.
Not only did the win bust the myth of easy “gimme games” against HBCUs that PWIs have been enjoying for decades, but it may also have established Black college basketball as a force to be reckoned with this season and possibly into the postseason’s vaunted NCAA Tournament.
Although the teams from the major and high mid-major conferences that routinely schedule HBCUs typically have more talent, Black colleges are all but forced to play the stronger opponent for sheer existential reasons: They get paid.
“It is a shared struggle for Division I programs at historically black colleges and universities, where resources continue to be severely limited and upward mobility for coaches remain almost nonexistent,” the Washington Post wrote last year. “Most schools have no choice but to stack their nonconference schedules with ‘guarantee games’ against cash-rich Power Five schools, essentially trading losses for money that will help keep their programs and athletic departments afloat.”
Even still, in some cases, some HBCU programs barely break even from the compensation they get versus their expenditures, underscoring even further the need to play such games to help ensure their programs’ survival.
(As the Post noted, these games typically make for “punishing schedules” that leave teams with losing records headed into the regular season. HBCUs winning one or more of those early games put them in a better position to be considered for at-large bids to the Tournament depending on how they fare in their conference games.)
Sometimes that strategy still doesn’t pan out for HBCUs, as seen last year when financial problems at Savannah State University forced its teams to move back to college sports’ less competitive Division II and leave the MEAC, one of just two college athletic conferences made up of only HBCUs.
Typically just one team from each conference of HBCUs gets awarded an automatic berth to play in the NCAA Tournament — also a major payday for schools’ athletic departments — with a chance to compete for the national championship. But if the type of play seen from HBCUs early this season persists — especially for Texas Southern, which has also beaten Baylor University which, like Oregon, belongs to the mighty Big 12 conference — then it could result in the first time in history a Black college gets an at-large bid to the tournament as selected by the NCAA.
That prospect, like the odds typically facing an HBCU playing a PWI, was, of course, a longshot. But achieving that goal would just mean yet another upset for the underdogs, which, as we’ve seen in less than 30 days of college basketball, is becoming more and more of a safe bet.
To be sure, HBCU basketball teams beating heavily favored PWIs is nothing new. The amazing NCAA tournament upset victory by the 15th seeded Hampton University Pirates in 2001 immediately comes to mind.
So while those types of victories are seemingly far and few in between, this season could be the start of the ending to that trend. See below other noteworthy victories by HBCU teams over their favored PWI opponents this season.
This gallery will be updated throughout the season as more HBCU upset their opponents.
1. Grambling routs Portland on the road, 70-58, Dec. 15
2. Hampton dominates Richmond 86-66, Nov. 25
3. Texas Southern beats 18th-ranked Oregon 89-84, Nov. 25
4. Morgan State beats Mt. St. Mary’s 78-68. Nov. 25
5. North Carolina A&T beats Mount St. Mary’s 74-60, Nov. 21
6. Morgan State beats Navy 75-51, Nov. 20
7. Howard beats UMass 68-63, Nov. 16
No video evidence, but plenty of proof that at least one UMass student was pretty salty.