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Waiting for Cinderella

Since 1985, 34 teams seeded 13-15 have pulled first-round stunners in the NCAA Tournament. Who will grab us by our heartstrings this year?

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2000


CLEVELAND -- The Samford Bulldogs' sneakers look as if they're made of the same leather as those worn by today's NCAA Midwest Region first-round opponent, the Syracuse Orangemen.

But look a bit closer.

In the light, they just might be the glass slippers of the next NCAA Tournament Cinderella -- a team with unheralded players from an obscure, not-ready-for-prime-time league that stuns one of the big boys of college basketball.

"The (No.) 1 seed is the only seed that gets anything anymore," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said Thursday. "I think it used to be that almost the first three or four seeds, you got something that was pretty easy."

Not anymore.

Since the NCAA Tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no No. 16-seeded team has upset a No. 1, despite a couple of close calls. But three No. 15s have won a game, 13 No. 14s, a dozen No. 13s and 18 No. 12s have advanced. That has fueled the delightful unpredictability that has become synonymous with March Madness.

And in a tournament that most agree is wide open, it could be a wild opening round today and Friday.

So, who are the best candidates to become this year's tournament darling(s)?

Indiana State -- back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Larry Bird led the Sycamores to the championship game in 1979 -- drew the West Region's seemingly unimposing No. 12 seed.

But versatile senior guard Nate Green led this season's bunch to an eye-opening win at Indiana.

Utah State is the No. 12 seed in the South and opens against defending national champion UConn, which has been far better of late than its No. 5 seed might indicate. Before you write this one off as a mismatch, consider that Utah State has won 19 straight, has beaten a healthy Southern California team and Fresno State and nearly upset Florida, losing 60-58.

"I don't think people are giving us the credit, but that's all right," said senior point guard Troy Rolle, a former Orlando Dr. Phillips star and junior college teammate of Chris Porter. "That's the way things are in college basketball. If you're not the big names, it's not good for (television) ratings. That's okay. I understand that. But I also understand you have to put on your suit and go on the court to get that victory. People want to see action, and we're going to give them some action."

St. Bonaventure, the No. 12 seed in the Midwest, opens today against tradition-rich No. 5-seed Kentucky. But with the indefinite suspension of starting forward Desmond Allison, the Wildcats are down to nine players. The senior-laden and fairly deep Bonnies have a win over Temple.

Dayton eked into the field as a No. 11 seed in the West and faces No. 6 Purdue, but, in case you missed it, the Flyers beat Kentucky at a neutral site and won at New Mexico.

"A good Cinderella team is just a good team, period," Dayton coach Oliver Purnell said. "The only difference is they're not well known."

Perhaps no team in this year's field fits that definition better than Samford, the Trans America Athletic Conference tournament champion. The No. 13-seeded Bulldogs began the season with a 68-60 win over powerhouse St. John's, the Big East tournament champion and the West's No. 2 seed.

"You would have to bring up Samford," St. John's coach Mike Jarvis said, laughing. "Teams like that are always, by most people, overlooked ... but you don't want to play a team like Samford. They can beat anybody on a given night."

The Bulldogs play a style that is unusual and difficult to defend. Coach Jimmy Tillette implemented the Princeton offense when he took over three seasons ago, and his team, while not as deliberate, befuddles teams with textbook back-door layups and uncanny three-point accuracy.

They lead the nation in field-goal percentage (50.3) and are third in three-pointers a game (9.7). All five starters, three seniors and two juniors, can shoot from outside.

Another reason the No. 4-seeded Orangemen, ranked No. 16 in the final AP poll, should be wary is that Samford, like virtually all Cinderella wannabes, doesn't shoulder a burden of expectation.

"I think there's a tremendous amount of pressure on Syracuse to win," Samford senior point guard Mario Lopez said. "Everybody expects them to win. ... They've been a Top 10 team most of the year. They're a great team. They have great players, a great coach. They have a very storied tradition at Syracuse, and we're coming in here like we have nothing to lose."

But the Bulldogs have everything to gain.

Although they can't rewrite the past, they can alter the impression they left the nation after last year's humbling NCAA Tournament appearance. They failed to score for the first 10:34 against St. John's, shooting five air balls (two from the free-throw line) and lost 69-43.

"Last year," Tillette said, "we went to a party and a first-round game broke out. ... We played nervously and we just didn't look like a team that could be on the same floor playing as St. John's. The guys don't want to repeat that on national television this year because it was embarrassing for us."

Last spring, Samford printed T-shirts that read in blue, block letters: "Improve/Repeat" on the front; "Advance" on the back.

"The only thing we need to prove is that we can play better," Lopez said.

Validation or vindication are unifying themes for Cinderellas. In the 1997-98 season, tiny Gonzaga won 23 games, won the West Coast Conference regular-season title, beat powerhouse Clemson and didn't receive an at-large berth.

Gonzaga got its league's automatic bid last year and, as a No. 10 seed, beat undermanned Minnesota, No. 2-seed Stanford and No. 6 Florida in overtime before losing to top-seeded and eventual national champion UConn in the West Region final.

"Last year, there was a definite sense in the locker room that we had something to prove, not just to ourselves, but to the NCAA (selection) committee," said former Gonzaga coach Dan Monson, in his first season at Minnesota. "All of those players had a real chip on their shoulders."

Is that still there? Gonzaga, which has won at UCLA and played tough against Cincinnati -- with Kenyon Martin -- again is a No. 10 seed after beating Pepperdine to win the West Coast Conference.

The Zags' high-tops might look like glass slippers again.

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