Scott Stanford: Here’s a tip: Go with Winthrop
Steamboat Springs — Best sports experience of my college years at the Naval Academy? The 1986 NCAA basketball tournament.
Navy beat 10th-seeded Tulsa in the first round but drew a tall order in the second – No. 2-seed Syracuse, which featured Pearl Washington and Rony Seikaly and had beaten us by 23 in December. Did I mention Syracuse’s Carrier Dome was the site of the NCAA sub-regional?
After falling behind by 10 early, Navy came back behind David Robinson’s triple double – 35 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks. Oh yeah, Robinson held Seikaly to 4 points, and Navy won going away, 97-85. Dick Vitale pulled out all the adjectives. We got one more win (over fellow Cinderella Cleveland State) to advance to the Elite Eight before a Duke team led by Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and Jay Bilas sent us packing.
Finishing among the top eight teams in the country ranks among the greatest achievements in Navy sports history. In Lawrence and Durham and Lexington you come to expect those things, but in Annapolis and dozens of other lower-profile college towns around the country, such runs are once in a generation.
That Navy or Cleveland State or Gonzaga or Wisconsin-Milwaukee or Valparaiso can go deep in the NCAA basketball tournament is what makes the event as good as it gets in sports.
Imagine if Boise State’s reward for beating Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl was a date with USC and then Florida. That’s the fantasy football equivalent of the real basketball feat George Mason pulled off last year when it took out Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to make the Final Four.
The 2007 tournament bracket comes out today. I’m not uber-bracketologist Joe Lunardi, but here are a few things to keep in mind as you start scratching out your picks:
Watch the Colonial: The Colonial Athletic Association produced that 1986 Navy team, as well as last year’s George Mason squad and the team that came to be known as college basketball’s Giant Killers, the Richmond Spiders. This year’s guaranteed CAA entry is Virginia Commonwealth (27-6).
Best bet to be the George Mason of 2007: Winthrop. Smart money says Butler, which already has beaten Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga. But hey, Butler lost the Horizon League title game, and after seven unsuccessful NCAA trips in nine years, Winthrop (28-4) is due for a run. Gregg Marshall is the best basketball coach you have never heard of, and his veteran starting five has deep NCAA experience. The Eagles’ only losses this year came against a legitimate final four group – Wisconsin, North Carolina, Texas A&M and Maryland. If Winthrop gets a single-digit seed, which it deserves, look out.
Upset specials: True upsets are when a mid-major seeded 11th or lower wins a game. Here are four teams who meet that criteria that can win at least one game: Davidson, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (assuming it wins the Southland Conference title today), Oral Roberts and Virginia Commonwealth.
Don’t let them in: I hate it when a sixth or seventh team from the Big 10 takes a spot away from a mid-major that stumbled in its conference tourney. Air Force, Drexel, Akron and Old Dominion deserve NCAA bids this year, but probably will lose out to one or more of these big-conference also-rans: Georgia Tech, Florida State, Illinois, Purdue, Michigan, Stanford, Mississippi or Mississippi State.
Not this time: One day, No. 16 will beat a No. 1, but not in 2007. My guess is Weber State will play Central Connecticut St. in the play-in game and the other 16 seeds will be Belmont, Niagara and North Texas. None of those guys is going to beat my No. 1 seeds: Ohio State, Kansas, North Carolina and Florida.
Final Four: I’m not sold on the Big 10 or the Big 12. I am sold on the ACC and SEC. So I’ll take North Carolina and Florida, so long as they don’t end up in the same regional. I like Georgetown to make a run. The fourth team? Why not Winthrop?
Now, let’s dance.
– To reach Scott Stanford, call 871-4221
or e-mail email@example.com
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