Blizzard looks for his shot to pull upset

UNC-Wilmington senior poses challenge for Terps

NCAA Tournament

March 21, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Before Brett Blizzard came along and covered the Colonial Athletic Association under an avalanche of three-pointers and cerebral basketball, it had never produced a player named first-team all-conference four straight years.

There is another distinction, however, that Blizzard yearns to earn.

CAA schools are renowned as NCAA giant killers. James Madison won its NCAA tournament opener three straight times from 1981-83. There have been plenty of other upsets by CAA teams in the past two decades, but only one other school has advanced in consecutive tournaments. Navy ruled the CAA in 1985 and '86, and the Mids followed David Robinson all the way to the Elite Eight in his junior season.

Blizzard and UNC-Wilmington can match that back-to-back feat today, when the 11th-seeded Seahawks challenge Maryland in the first round of the South Regional. The Terps won it all last year, when UNC-Wilmington reveled in a win over fourth-seeded Southern California.

The Seahawks are more highly regarded now, and so is Blizzard, a 6-foot-4, 195-pound guard.

A coach's son, Blizzard went to school in Tallahassee but was spurned by Florida State and every other Atlantic Coast Conference team. There were immediate regrets when as a freshman he led the nation in three-point shooting, 46.8 percent. This season, Blizzard averaged a career-high 21.3 points and 4.3 rebounds and led the Seahawks to their third NCAA berth in his four seasons.

Before Blizzard arrived, UNC-Wilmington had been to one NCAA tournament.

UNC-Wilmington rookie head coach Brad Brownell is 34, and his staff is one of the youngest in Division I. Forward Craig Callahan is the only senior beside Blizzard whose savvy is appreciated.

"I think my experience helps," Blizzard said. "Coach Brownell told Craig and I at the beginning of the season that this is our team. He looked to us to be leaders on and off the court."

Some of Blizzard's qualities can't be quantified as one NBA draft Web site didn't list him in its mock draft.

"The NBA probably has a lot of the same questions that coaches in the ACC and SEC had, whether or not he has the foot speed," said Mike Hunt, the coach at Towson of the CAA. "His knowledge of the game makes up for any physical deficiencies.

"He has a great understanding of the game. He's underrated as a passer. He knows how to use his teammates. He doesn't force things, and that's rare for a guy who scores as much as he does. We tried to limit his touches. It didn't work too well."

UNC-Wilmington beat Towson by 32 and 24 points this season, but Blizzard and the Seahawks have put up impressive numbers on the big boys in Division I, too.

Blizzard scored 29 points in the second round of the NCAAs last year, when the Seahawks' Cinderella season was stopped by eventual runner-up Indiana. UNC-Wilmington began this season with a loss at Texas Tech, but Blizzard dropped 29 on the Red Raiders.

The Terps' Drew Nicholas needs to play the kind of defense on Blizzard that he did against J.J. Redick back in January, when the Terps blew out Duke. Both players have something to prove. Nicholas has never won an NCAA game as a starter, and Blizzard gets a chance to get even with one of the conferences that overlooked him.

"That has pretty much gone away," Blizzard said of the sting he felt during the recruiting process. "I pretty much accomplished what I set out to do in college. I've proved myself against the highest level, whether it was the ACC or any other conference."

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