Still possible NCAA surprises without ‘Dunk City’
Mercer has already been to ”Dunk City” on the way to its first NCAA tournament since 1985, grounding the darling team everyone got to know last March.
Florida Gulf Coast, which last year became the first No. 15 seed to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, isn’t in this 68-team field after losing at home to Mercer in the Atlantic Sun Conference championship game.
So can those Bears (26-8) from Macon, Ga., duplicate what their Atlantic Sun rival did last year? Will another double-digit seed step up in all the madness this year?
Maybe it could be the team from deep in the heart of Texas with a 28-game winning streak. Or possibly some Fightin’ Blue Hens, Chanticleers or Jaspers.
Mercer’s five senior starters are at least getting a chance they felt was missed last March. The Bears drew a No. 14 seed in the loaded Midwest Regional and play Duke on Friday in Raleigh, N.C.
While watching FGCU’s captivating NCAA run last year, after the Eagles won at Mercer for the Atlantic Sun title, all that went through Bears guard Langston Hall’s mind was, ”That could have been us.”
Stephen F. Austin (31-2), the Southland Conference team from Nacogdoches, Texas, hasn’t lost in nearly four months – only No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Wichita State have won more games. The Lumberjacks, a No. 12 seed facing VCU on Friday, were also motivated this season by a conference championship loss last March that left them out of the Big Dance then.
”It was definitely disappointing but it’s definitely fueled our engines for this year. We’ve been playing with a chip on our shoulder,” said Jacob Parker, the floppy-haired junior forward who was the Southland Conference Player of the Year. ”We always say one team, one dream. And coach’s big motto is dream big.”
Ivy league champion Harvard (26-4) is in its third consecutive NCAA tournament after a 66-year drought, and is a No. 12 seed against Cincinnati. The Crimson got their first NCAA tourney win last year as a No. 14 seed, upsetting New Mexico 68-62.
But Harvard’s lone victory last March was overshadowed by that No. 15 seed from ”Dunk City.”
One of the No. 15 seeds this season is Eastern Kentucky (24-9), an OVC team that is among the national leaders for made 3-pointers (9.2 per game) and steals (8.8). The Colonels’ first NCAA tournament game since 2007 is Friday against Big 12 regular-season champion Kansas (24-9).
The other 15s are Patriot champion American playing Wisconsin; Southern Conference winner Wofford taking on Michigan, a Final Four team last year; and Horizon champ Milwaukee against Villanova.
MAAC champ Manhattan (25-7) got in the field for the first time since 2004, when as a No. 12 seed the Jaspers won a first-round game against Florida. They also won as a No. 13 seed against Oklahoma in the 1995 tourney. This time, they are a No. 13 again and take on defending national champion Louisville in the Midwest.
North Dakota State has won three consecutive FCS national football championships, but the Bison (25-6) are in the NCAA basketball tournament for only the second time – a No. 12 seed facing Oklahoma (23-9) of the Big 12. The Summit League champion Bison are the nation’s best shooting team, making 51 percent of their field goals this season, and also are one of only 13 teams with less than 10 turnovers a game.
The Blue Hens from Delaware (25-9) won the Colonial Athletic Association championship game on a late field goal by 6-foot-9 forward Carl Baptiste, who finished with a career-best 24 points. Devon Saddler, the Blue Hens career scoring leader, convinced his coach to go inside to Baptiste instead of having him take a final shot like everyone else expected before Delaware’s first NCAA berth since 1999.
Big South tournament champion Coastal Carolina (21-12) is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993, which was two years after they became the first Big South team to make the field.
Seventh-year Chanticleers coach Cliff Ellis previously took South Alabama, Clemson and Auburn to the NCAA tournament. But his last trip was 11 years ago when Auburn made it to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen for the second time in five years.
Ellis had been hopeful of maybe getting in one of the games in Dayton to start the tournament. The Chanticleers are instead a No. 16 taking on Virginia on Friday.