Spotlight falls on unlikely title hopefuls
Holy cow, Holy Cross is in! While I’ve never actually heard these words spoken, it’s entirely conceivable that someone might have uttered them on the campus of the Massachusetts liberal arts school after the Crusadors won the Patriot League conference tournament last week. After all, it’s not every year that your team gets invited to the big dance that is the NCAA tournament.
Well folks, there’s even more to it than that. You’ve also got the underdogs. Winthrop. Creighton. McNeese State. Davidson. These are the schools that, strictly for their presence, really make the tournament special. Invariably, one of these schools will make a run through the gauntlet of larger, high-profile programs and for a few days, that institution’s name will live on the airwaves as fodder for talk radio and throughout the conversation surrounding office gambling pools. That a number 12 seed will jolt a number five seed is a foregone conclusion. It happens every year.
Valparaiso has pulled off some stunners in recent years. Princeton came out on top in one of the greatest upsets in tournament history in 1996, beating mighty UCLA 43-41 on the strength of the back-door cut. Perpetually underestimated Gonzaga has made sustained tournament runs a yearly tradition, and our neighbor to the south, Weber State, managed to pull off some shockers a few years back.
Looking at this year’s tournament bracket, the stage appears set for another batch of upsets. With parity throughout the college ranks in 2001-02, any number of teams could capture the championship on the strength of a hot stretch drive.
In the South regional, don’t expect any surprises from Winthrop. The Eagles get Duke, the odds-on favorite to win the whole enchilada in Las Vegas, in the first round and will be summarily thumped. The best bet for an upset here lies in the contest between Indiana and Utah. Utah matches up well with the Hoosiers, a team that has lost seven of their last nine first-round tournament games.
I could see Michigan State pulling off a minor upset of North Carolina State back East, despite the team’s shoddy play in the Big Ten tournament. Tom Izzo always seems to have his kids ready to play in March.
And no, they won’t be saying “Holy cow, Holy Cross wins” after the Crusaders fall to Kansas in the Midwest regional. The Jayhawks are coming off of an emotional loss to Oklahoma, and the nation’s top scoring team (93 ppg) will be looking to vent. Poor Holy Cross. As far as upsets go, I could see Pepperdine, led by former Portland prep star Boomer Brazzle, surprising Wake Forest.
And out West, it looks like the feel-good story of the year will belong to Wyoming. Look for the Cowboys to capitalize on their offensive balance (four players score in double figures for the Pokes) and turn the tables on Gonzaga in their opening matchup.
For all of the drama these ambitious teams from our nation’s myriad conferences afford us, the goombas in Vegas have it pegged correctly. Duke will repeat as national champions in 2001-02. With Jason Williams, one of the five best point guards in America at any level directing the offense and Jesuit alum Michael Dunleavy Jr. hitting shots from all over the court, the Blue Devils appear poised for a dynastic stretch of dominance in the sport.
Only time will tell if any of these prognostications prove succinct, but watching these games will be time well spent no matter what. Bring on the hoops.
– Daniel Powell
Three sleepers to keep your eyes on
Tuesday night, opening round action highlighted Alcorn State being sent home by Siena. Siena, who triumphed 81-77, faces Maryland in round one of the big show. College basketball has been at its absolute best this year.
There are now 64 teams, six rounds to survive and one goal: emerge victorious as the national champion of college basketball. If there’s one thing I appreciate, it’s the upsets where the powerhouse teams go home.
I’ve been watching teams from everywhere all season long. I’m here to inform you of my favorite fits of the Cinderella slipper for 2002 March Madness. There are three “sleeper” teams that will make some noise this year: Marquette (5), Kent State (10) and Murray State (14).
Marquette represents the Conference USA. I like the way this team plays, especially the leader Dwayne Wade (and he’s only a sophomore). He can score, rebound, and pass. He leads the team in each of the three categories (points, assists and rebounds per game). They have beat teams like Indiana and Gonzaga this year already. Marquette had to face the always-challenging competition of the Conference USA teams and still maintained a record of 26-6. Both guards, Wade and Cordell Henry, will have to step up big if this team hopes to turn heads. The squad has suffered two tough losses to Cincinnati, both late in the season, but it can keep up with virtually any team in this tournament.
Next is Kent State, representing the Mid-American Conference. The team’s record is an impressive 27-5. Kent State won 22 of its last 23 games. Out of those 22 games, 16 of them have come by a margin of 10 or more points. They showcase a ferocious backcourt with three guards that put up double figures in scoring with Trevor Huffman (16.1), Antonio Gates (15.7) and Andrew Mitchell (15.5). This team only averages 11 turnovers per contest and they shoot a clean 47 percent from the field, putting the hurt on the nylon. This team rebounds well, and rebounding is a priority en route to winning ball games, especially versus first round opponent Oklahoma State.
Finally, we have Murray State from the Ohio Valley Conference. The team’s record is not outstanding at 19-12. But the team has four players averaging in double figures and is on a roll winning its last seven during the month of February upon entering the conference tournament. Murray plays efficiently on the offensive side of the floor, shooting 45 percent on the season. The team’s top scorer is Justin Burdine, who averages over 20 points per ball game. It will be crucial that Burdine show up to play to send first-round opponent Georgia home with an early exit.
The big show started up yesterday and by Saturday, it will be down to 32. A whole new season is about to begin. Let the Cinderella slippers be passed out accordingly.
– Imran Haider