GREENSBORO, N.C. -- As the team walked into the arena single file, one's first thought was whether the players were going to get any bigger. That not being the case, the next question was whether the team bus driver took a wrong turn on the way to a high school tournament.
These were Fighting Camels of Campbell University and, yes, they are in the NCAA tournament. Because they defeated Charleston Southern in the Big South title game, the Fighting Camels (19-11), seeded 16th in the East, will be making their big-time debut against top-ranked and No. 1-seeded Duke (28-2) tonight at the Greensboro Coliseum.
In other first-round games here, No. 4 seed Seton Hall (21-8) takes on No. 13 La Salle (20-10), No. 5 Missouri (20-8) plays No. 12 West Virginia, and No. 8 Texas goes against No. 9 Iowa.
But all eyes will be on Campbell, a school of 4,900 students in Buies Creek, N.C. The school with the odd nickname (the name was changed from the Hornets to the Camels in 1934), Campbell has received the most media attention the school has ever received with its pairing with Duke.
"We're glad to be in the dance, but we're not thrilled with the particularpartner that we're dancing with," said Campbell coach Billy Lee. "We're definitely in a sword fight with a pocket knife."
Oh yes, in addition to having an off-beat nickname, the Camels also have an off-beat coach. A North Carolina native in his sixth year at Campbell, Lee -- with his deep southern drawl -- probably gives the best coach's interview that no one has ever heard, until now.
"My coaches won't let me recruit past Virginia because of my accent," Lee said.
His team has a definite regional flavor, with four of his starters from North Carolina. Starting guard Steve Martin, who is from Philadelphia, said just listening to his coach talk is a different experience.
"His favorite [phrase] is to 'stick to your man like a duck on a June-bug,' " Martin said. "Just coming from Philadelphia and listening to him talk is funny to me."
But Lee has tended to serious business on the basketball court, leading the team to a 19-11 record -- the most by the school since joining Division I in 1977. The Fighting Camels got an automatic NCAA bid by winning the Big South tournament, just one year after finishing last in the league.
But now Campbell will be facing a Duke team that is looking to go wire to wire as the nation's top team. The Fighting Camels will do so with a front line that is 6-foot-6 across and a starting five with just one player over 190 pounds (center Billy Ellison is 6-6 and weighs 230 pounds). One oddsmaker gave the team a trillion-to-one chance to win.
"As long as we have that one chance that's all we need," Martin said. "You don't need a trillion, just that one.
"Yes, we have to guard a guy like Laettner," Martin added. "But a 6-11 guy is going to have to guard a 6-6 guy. Can he do that?"
No, the Fighting Camels don't lack confidence. They can take some satisfaction that last year's Big South winner, Coastal Carolina, played Indiana tough until the final minutes of their first-round game.
"It's serious, but it's not nuclear war," Lee said of the challenge.
Which is how Mississippi Valley State felt on this same court in 1986 when, as a No. 16 seed, they took on the top-seeded Blue Devils. Duke won, 85-78, but the game went down to the final two minutes.
When Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked whether this would be a difficult game to play with the expected mismatch, he replied not at all.
"Our team has been ready to play every team, so I don't see why we won't be ready to play," Krzyzewski said. "We feel we're a better basketball team and we feel we should win. But we just want to play good basketball. I'd be upset if my guys weren't diving after loose balls in the last minute."
If all goes as expected, the Duke players won't have to. But in a sport where a lot of strange things have occurred, the Campbell team feels there is always that chance.