Notes and tidbits from around the NCAA Tournament
Notes from around the NCAA Tournament on Thursday:
NO GYM? NO PROBLEM
They practice in a warehouse. They lift weights in an abandoned grocery store, where the signs ''fresh produce'' and ''dairy'' still hang.
Complain about the - shall we say - less-than-ideal conditions? The North Dakota State Bison wouldn't dream of it.
''It's been a fun and interesting year,'' coach David Richman said, as his 15th-seeded underdogs prepared to play Gonzaga in the South Region on Friday.
It was supposed to be a rebuilding year, a time to catch their breath and rebound from the loss of three starters and the coach who came to the tournament last year as a No. 12 seed, charmed the pants off everyone and knocked off Oklahoma.
The seniors graduated. The coach, Saul Phillips, left for Ohio.
Meanwhile, their home was slowly being demolished, making way for a $50 million renovation of the athletic facilities now underway on the campus in Fargo.
''The construction crew was forcing us out,'' Richman explained. ''We needed to make some quick decisions.''
But someone forgot to tell the actual team that it was rebuilding, too.
With the coaching offices moved to an industrial park, practices relocated to, among other locales, a nearby warehouse with 20-foot-high ceilings, and with the weight room in the produce section, the Bison won the Summit League and posted their third straight 20-win season.
- Eddie Pells
One thing is for certain about Buffalo coming into the NCAA Tournament: There is no reason for the Bulls to be intimidated by any opponent, including fifth-seeded West Virginia.
Buffalo played at Kentucky in its second regular-season game and led the Wildcats 38-33 at half before losing 71-52.
''It's like have you seen ''Space Jam?'' Buffalo's Xavier Ford said. ''It's like playing against the Monstars.''
Beating Kentucky for a half didn't provide the Bulls a blueprint for finishing the job.
''You got to do everything right against a team like that,'' Ford said. ''No mistakes It's basketball. Any team could get beat on any given night. But a team like that you would have to be doing everything right. I don't know if anybody can answer that question.''
The Bulls also played at Wisconsin, and led at the half before losing by 12.
''We feel like we played the best of the best,'' Shannon Evans said. ''So going into this tournament, we know that we can hang with the best.''
- Ralph D. Russo
CAMEROON TO LAS CRUCES
It was only three years ago that Pascal Siakam got serious about basketball, and now he's the second-leading scorer for New Mexico State and the Western Athletic Conference freshman of the year.
The native of Douala, Cameroon, thought his future was in soccer until he attended a basketball camp on a lark. Turns out he was a natural, so he dropped soccer and turned his focus to basketball. In 2012, he moved to the United States to attend God's Academy near Dallas, where he played organized ball for the first time.
''I was OK,'' Siakam said Thursday. ''It wasn't something real serious. I was playing to have fun, and it gave me an opportunity to come to the United States and continue my education, so I just took it.''
Siakam knew he could get his education paid for if he were good enough at basketball. His brother James played basketball at Vanderbilt until last year.
Pascal has a bright future. The 6-foot-9 forward averages 13 points, a team-best 7.7 rebounds and is one of the top big men in Division I in shooting, at 57.7 percent.
''I didn't have a lot of offers,'' he said. ''A lot of people didn't know about me. New Mexico State came, and it's been a great fit for me. There are a lot of international students there, and I felt it could be good for me.''
- Eric Olson
WELCOME HOME, DAMON
Arizona assistant coach Damon Stoudamire came home for the Wildcats' NCAA Tournament opener.
Stoudamire was born Portland and was a standout at Wilson High School before playing for Arizona from 1991-95. He spent eight seasons playing for the Portland Trail Blazers as a pro.
Arizona senior guard T.J. McConnell credited Stoudamire, coach Sean Miller and his father with making him into the point guard he is.
''I'm the luckiest guy to have him as a coach,'' McConnell said about Stoudamire. ''Glad we have a chance to let him come back home.''
The second-seeded Wildcats faced No. 15 seed Texas Southern at the Moda Center, which is the Trail Blazers' home court.
- Anne M. Peterson
Virginia Commonwealth standout guard Briante Weber is not letting a season-ending knee injury stop him from being part of the NCAA Tournament.
Weber was as active as anybody during the Rams' practice at Portland's Moda Center a day before seventh-seeded VCU faced No. 10 seed Ohio State in the round of 64. He broke down team huddles and hobbled around the court on crutches, talking to coaches and giving teammates advice.
The senior suffered a season-ending right knee injury in a loss to Richmond on Jan. 31, tearing his ACL, MCL and meniscus. Even without the face of its havoc-causing defense, VCU got hot in the Atlantic 10 Tournament and beat Dayton in the title game. The Rams dedicated the championship to their injured leader, who helped cut down the nets during an emotional celebration.
Despite his injury, Weber wants to do everything he can to give his team a lift.
''It's not easy. There's days where I get down and want to just think about myself,'' Weber said. ''It's definitely bigger than me right now.''
- Antonio Gonzalez
BO AND BRACKETS
Bo Ryan clearly knows basketball. On Tuesday, he was named one of four finalists for the Naismith National Coach of the Year award.
Don't, however, ask the Wisconsin coach for help filling out your bracket.
First off, he's busy getting the top-seeded Badgers ready for their first NCAA tournament game on Friday night against Coastal Carolina.
He wouldn't have much in the way of valuable advice, either.
''Have I been asked? Yeah, I've had people ask, but I tell them to just talk to the secretary at the office that won it four of the last five years,'' Ryan said Tuesday at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin. ''She's better at it then all these experts.''
Ryan did admit to having students in a class on basketball he once taught at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville fill out brackets ''for bragging rights.'' Ryan would grade them and tell them who won.
But he's never filled out a bracket or doled out any serious guidance.
''Some people did, like it was a Catholic school, `Oh, they're going to win.' If it was an animal - a nice cute animal - they were going to pick that team. And those people have won.''
- Genaro C. Armas
Everyone knows that politics can be every bit as cutthroat as sports.
When you combine the two? Well, you get the spat between New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and Kansas counterpart Derek Schmidt that erupted this week.
Balderas brazenly predicted that New Mexico State, the No. 15 seed in the Midwest, would not only knock off second-seeded Kansas in its tournament opener Friday, but then beat seventh-seeded Wichita State - another school from the Sunflower State - to reach the Sweet 16.
The Shockers play No. 10 seed Indiana in another second-round game in Omaha, Nebraska.
That certainly didn't go over well with Schmidt, who graduated from tradition-rich Kansas. Schmidt called the prediction ''baseless'' and said that Balderas has much to learn since taking office in January.
''As a new attorney general, Mr. Balderas clearly has much to learn about Kansas basketball,'' Schmidt said. ''I wish him all the best in pondering these philosophical matters at length during the free time he will have next week after his team has departed the tournament.''
- Dave Skretta
Kenny Gaines sat at his locker, his left foot bundled up in a heating pad and warm towels.
Yes, the injury bug that plagued Georgia much of the season has followed the Bulldogs to Charlotte for the NCAA Tournament.
Gaines sprained the foot in practice and missed the regular-season finale against Auburn. He returned to the lineup against South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, only to re-aggravate the injury and miss the semifinal loss to Arkansas. He said he's day to day, and it's unclear how effective he'll be if he plays Friday in the East Region opener against Michigan State.
''It's just something that comes with the game,'' Gaines said. ''I mean, it is what it is. You've just got to play through it. We've got a couple of more weeks in the season and I'll be able to find a little rest.''
Coach Mark Fox said Gaines had treatment when the team arrived at the hotel Wednesday night, then again before breakfast and once more by trying to keep the foot warm before Thursday's practice. Gaines looked OK while shooting with the team at the end of practice, working on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and one-dribble pull-ups. His status will depend on how his foot responds, though Fox said he expected Gaines would be able to play.
Gaines is the team's No. 2 scorer at 11.6 points per game. He's had a bumpy year that included missing much of the preseason due to illness, then suffering a shoulder injury in December that fortunately coincided with a two-week break and didn't keep him out of any games.
In all, regular starters have combined for 20 missed games due to injury this year.
''I feel like one of these days,'' Gaines said, ''things will turn around for us.''
- Aaron Beard
BYRDS OF A FEATHER
Belmont Bruins coach Rick Byrd's father, Ben, was a former sportswriter whose career helped shape his life - eventually leading to him becoming a basketball coach.
Ben Byrd worked for the Knoxville Journal as a beat writer covering Tennessee basketball and SEC football, and he'd regularly bring young Rick to college basketball and football games.
As a young boy, Rick would eat it up.
He'd sell programs before Tennessee men's basketball games and then scramble just before tipoff to find a seat under the press table by his father's feet, where he would settle in to watch games.
''I would go sit under my dad on the edge of the court and watch great basketball games with Adolph Rupp's Kentucky teams and Pete Maravich and that kind of stuff,'' Byrd said. ''I have to give him credit - or blame - for what I ended up doing.''
- Steve Reed