Top-seeded Tribe hopes CAA tourney yields first NCAA berth

William & Mary coach Tony Shaver is no longer ignoring history; he’s embracing it.

The school in Williamsburg, Virginia, has played basketball since 1905 and is one of five of the original 160 Division I men’s basketball programs that have never advanced to the NCAA tournament. It’s a topic Shaver tried to avoid in previous seasons, but one he’s addressing this year.

”As I told the guys, `Let’s be the first,”’ the coach in his 12th season said Thursday.

William & Mary (18-11, 12-6 Colonial Athletic Association) left Thursday for the tournament in Baltimore, as the top seed.

That’s the main reason Shaver has changed the way he addresses the NCAA tournament.

”We’re in a different position now,” Shaver said. ”The first time or two that we got to the finals, I don’t want to use the term `miraculous,’ but it was a great accomplishment, like winning the title more or less. But we think we’re good enough now to win this thing, so we feel differently about our position.”

William & Mary has made four trips to the title game, including three in the past seven seasons. Repeatedly reaching the final has helped to change expectations for the Tribe, who last year came the closest to ending he drought. They lost 75-74 to Delaware in the championship game.

This year’s team will arrive at the tournament led by probable CAA player of the year Marcus Thornton, who averages 19.4 points and this season broke the school’s career scoring record that had stood since 1950. They also have three other players – Omar Prewitt (13.0), Terry Tarpey (12.0) and Daniel Dixon (11.3) – averaging in double figures, giving them a balance on offense that Shaver said he been among the keys to their success.

All four have led the Tribe in scoring at least twice, but the team struggled down the stretch, losing three of their last seven, especially because Dixon missed five games.

The shooting guard’s balky hamstring isn’t yet 100 percent, but Shaver said his team will again be at full strength when it opens play on Saturday in the quarterfinals against the Friday night winner of Elon and Towson.

Shaver spent 17 seasons at Division III Hampden-Sydney before taking the job at William & Mary, and twice led the Tigers to the Final Four, including a loss in the national championship game in 1999. That tournament success, he said, comes in part from an awareness that it is often the first game in a tournament that is the most important, and the most dangerous.

That is especially true this season.

The Tribe was awarded the top seed by virtue of a 5-1 record against the other three teams that tied for the CAA regular season title, but suffered five losses against the teams seeded sixth to 10th.

”We have proved that we can beat the good teams in this league, but now we’ve got to go do it on tournament day, if that makes sense,” Shaver said before practice Thursday. ”If we were 1-7 against the top teams in this league, there would have to be a measure of doubt, but we’ve been very successful against the tops teams and haven’t been as good against the bottom half of the league, so I think we feel like if we do our job and play at the level we’re capable of playing, we can be successful this weekend.”

In a season when his pursuit of the scoring record gained much notoriety, Thornton hopes the real prize awaits this weekend and involves a ladder, a pair of scissors and an historic achievement.

”It would be nothing short of amazing for myself,” he said while riding the bus to Maryland. ”To watch the program progress since I’ve been here is really something to be a part of. We’ve already accomplished one feat, the regular season title, and we’re not selling ourselves short. We want it all.

”We’re looking to lock in this weekend and get it done.”

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