Bracket busters

What does it take for a lower-seeded team to pull off an NCAA upset?

March 14, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS -- All over the country this week, teams are talking about becoming the next Gonzaga or Valparaiso or for those with longer memories, the next Cleveland State. All over the country, players are hoping to become the next Casey Calvary or Bryce Drew or Mouse McFadden.

The 2002 NCAA men's basketball tournament begins here today at the Edward Jones Dome and three other sites -- the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C., The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M., and ARCO Arena in Sacramento, Calif. -- as do the dreams of turning a predictable first-round defeat into so much fairy dust.

Who will become this year's surprise team?

Will it be 15th-seeded Hampton, looking to do to No. 2 seed Connecticut tomorrow in an East Regional game at MCI Center what it did to Iowa State last season in the same circumstance in Boise, Idaho?

Will it be 13th-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington, thousands of miles from home, trying to do what fellow Colonial Athletic Association member Richmond did as a No. 12 seed to Auburn in 1984 and to Syracuse as a No. 15 seed in 1991?

"Most of the teams in our situation are used to playing on the road," said UNC-Wilmington coach Jerry Wainwright earlier this week, before his Seahawks left to play Southern California today in Sacramento. "Being the last one at the ball, getting in through a back window, becomes a way of life. Cinderella is just a pretty name for it."

Ever since Cleveland State and their little Mouse beat Indiana and St. Joseph's before losing by a point to Navy (with a fellow named David Robinson) in the Sweet 16 of the 1986 tournament, long shots have paid off on a regular basis in company office pools and Vegas betting rooms.

Valparaiso -- Valpo to its fans, not to mention a few hundred headline writers -- caused ripples four years ago when the Crusaders beat fourth-seeded Mississippi and Florida State, turning Homer and Bryce Drew into household names outside their own house.

"The shot that Bryce hit in 1998 [a three-pointer to beat Ole Miss at the buzzer] was literally the shot heard 'round the world," Homer Drew recalled yesterday as he prepared another 13th-seeded Valparaiso team, this time to play Kentucky in St. Louis today. "It has been great exposure for Valparaiso."

While Valparaiso hasn't repeated anything close to that since -- losing to Maryland in the opening round in 1999 and to subsequent national champion Michigan State in 2000 -- the program has grown dramatically. This year's 25-7 team set a school record for wins.

"The team this year wants to make its own identity," said senior guard Jared Nuness of a team that lost by four points at Arizona and by eight at Kansas. "We're not trying to look back at the past; we want to focus on the future."

Even Kentucky coach Tubby Smith wasn't sure if his struggling Wildcats should be favored against a team that is more experienced and deeper than his own.

"They were able to accomplish things that we didn't, so we're looking up at them," said Smith, whose 20-9 team lost two of its past three games, most recently to South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament. "We might come in as an underdog."

Gonzaga, the team that has become the poster program for NCAA tournament upstarts, will face an unusual situation this year. After reaching the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed in 1999, and the Sweet 16 the past two years seeded 10th and 12th, the Bulldogs are seeded sixth in the West Regional this year.

"We've played with a target on our backs the whole year," Gonzaga coach Mark Few told The New York Times recently.

While Gonzaga will be expected to beat Wyoming when they play today in Albuquerque, the perennial Cinderella will have a difficult time extending its magic. Considered the most underseeded team in the field -- after being ranked in the Top 10 for most of the season -- Gonzaga could face Arizona on Saturday.

With its win last year over Indiana as a No. 13 seed, Kent State was one of 13 teams with lower seeds to advance to the second round. Don't expect as many upsets this year as in the recent past, given the NCAA selection committee's new plan to have teams playing closer to home.

In the East, top seed Maryland will play its first two games in Washington. In the Midwest, top seed Kansas will open in St. Louis. Illinois, the fourth seed in the Midwest, will play in Chicago and Pittsburgh, the No. 3 seed in the East, will play within the city limits at Mellon Arena.

A lot depends on how teams are playing coming into the tournament. Smith sees a fragile group that has been unable to overcome a season filled with off-court distractions, the latest being a curfew violation by Gerard Fitch that led to the sophomore guard's suspension from the SEC tournament.

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