Once Upon A Time

A trio of Cinderellas--Bradley, George Mason and Wichita State--joined dominant midmajor Gonzaga in a historic Sweet 16. Can the fairy tale continue all the way to the Final Four?
March 27, 2006

Tennessee wastoast, Rocky Toppled by a band of no-name Shockers, but Wichita State guardKaron Bradley wanted even more. In 2003 Bradley was a three-point-shootingreserve for Marquette during its magical Final Four run, and he knows exactlywhat it takes to reach the college hoops promised land. "I've been tellingall the guys that we have the potential to go to Indianapolis," the juniortransfer said after his cold-blooded runner had put the seventh-seeded Shockersup for good in their 80-73 upset of the No. 2--seeded Volunteers last Saturday."I see some of the same characteristics we had at Marquette on thisteam." ¶ Wait a second.... Wichita State is talking Final Four? No lie: InChina it may be the Year of the Dog, but in Bracketville it's the Year of theMidmajor--or, if you're CBS broadcasters Billy Packer and Jim Nantz, the Yearof the Horse's Ass. A week after the smug TV talking heads ripped the NCAAtournament committee for awarding three at-large bids to the ascendant MissouriValley Conference and one to the Colonial Athletic Association, three teamsfrom those non-BCS conferences (Bradley, George Mason and Wichita State)survived a wild opening week, smiting favored bullies from the ACC, Big East,Big 12 and SEC and joining fellow midmajor Gonzaga in a historic Sweet 16.

Not since 1979,when Indiana State and Penn became the last midmajors to reach the Final Four,had four teams from outside the traditional power conferences scrapped theirway to the regional semifinals. So tantalizing is the possibility that it'sworth asking: Is 2006 the year that a midmajor ends the three-decade-longdrought and breaks through to the Final Four? "Sooner or later it's goingto happen," says Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, "because the gapbetween the so-called midmajors and the bigger programs is getting smaller. Ijust hope it doesn't happen in our region."

He has reason toworry: If U-Dub upsets top-seeded UConn in Washington, D.C., on Friday, theHuskies would have to face either 11th-seeded George Mason (in a virtual homegame for the Patriots) or Wichita State, either of which will be the firstmidmajor in the Elite Eight since Kent State in 2002. Just as George Masonjarred two reigning Final Four outfits (Michigan State and North Carolina) lastweek, 13th-seeded Bradley knocked off a pair of power-conference heavyweights(Kansas and Pittsburgh) and needs only to dispatch top-seeded Memphis (itselfalmost a midmajor) in Oakland on Thursday to set up a potential all-midmajorregional final against No. 3--seeded Gonzaga (which faces UCLA in the Round of16).

The midmajor surgewas sweet vindication for the open-minded tournament committee--and a stingingrebuke to CBS's Nantz and Packer, whose impassioned defense of the snubbedbig-conference also-rans (see: Cincinnati, Florida State, Michigan) sounded astone-deaf as arguing that Alex Rodriguez is underpaid. The charm of the NCAAslies in its classic upsets, populist appeal and neutral-court democracy, alesson the Eye Guys appeared to have forgotten. "I'm all for the little guy... but it's gone way too far now," Nantz chirped after the bracket wasannounced, while Packer said the committee had "to be kidding" when itawarded the Valley and Colonial a combined six bids. "What's going to begreat about this first week is what those six bids actually do in the firstround," Packer concluded, and he was right, of course, just not in the wayhe intended.

The CBScommentators' backscratching for their power-conference partners dismayedchampions of the little guys. "We were totally stunned," says MissouriValley commissioner Doug Elgin, whose conference had finished a record-highsixth in the national RPI ratings. "It was clear that they were going onbrand-name recognition, but what offended me the most was that Billy admittedhe hadn't seen any of our games this season." By Sunday, as George Masonfans were chanting "Bil-ly Pac-ker!" in Dayton and choruses of"M-V-C!" rang out in Greensboro and Auburn Hills, at least Nantz hadgiven the small-conference teams their due. "Obviously, the Missouri Valleyhas proven us wrong, so good for them," he told SI on Sunday. (Meanwhile,Packer remained largely silent on the subject, on and off the air.)

While CBS's A-Teamwas busy calling the wins of two familiar No. 1 seeds (UConn and Villanova) inPhiladelphia last week, there were countless golden midmajor moments which,like the MVC's games this year, Nantz and Packer no doubt missed. There wasWichita State coach Mark Turgeon challenging his Shockers during a huddle eightminutes into their upset of Tennessee: "I don't see any difference betweenthis team and a Valley team. Don't look at what's written on their chest. Justgo out and play!" There was George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, who told hisPatriots during a mid-week practice that they needed to "visualize"what it would be like to win in the tournament, whereupon guard Jamar Butlerand forward Jai Lewis responded by picking up a watercooler and dumping it onLarranaga's head. "We're visualizing the celebration," they told him,presaging their jubilation after coming back from an early 16-2 deficit to slaythe Tar Heels.

There was Bradleycoach Jim Les calling the bond among midmajors "a neat camaraderie"after his team had gotten a lift from hotel-mate Northwestern State followingthe 14th-seeded Jaguars' last-second takedown of No. 3 Iowa last Friday."They were telling us, 'Hey, you're the next one. Go get an upset!'"says Les, whose Braves got two thanks to a gargantuan 28-point, seven-reboundeffort by 7-foot sophomore center Patrick O'Bryant against Pittsburgh onSunday. And there was Gonzaga junior forward Sean Mallon, who proved his teamis hardly a one-man (Adam Morrison) wrecking crew by going for 15 points and 10boards in the Zags' 90-80 win against Indiana on Saturday. "You've beenaccused of being soft and weak. Do you think you've dispelled that notion?"a TV reporter asked Mallon afterward, to which he deadpanned, "I've neverreally heard that before, but now that I have, I hope so."

So resounding wasthe midmajors' triumph last week that it may very well hasten the demise of theterm itself. The first documented use of "midmajor" appeared at leastas far back as a 1977 Washington Post article quoting George Washingtonathletic director Jack Kvancz, who was then head men's basketball coach atCatholic University, and the exact definition has been in dispute ever since."Now it seems to mean any school in a conference smaller than the Atlantic10 or larger than the Southern Conference, and any team that does well in thebottom seven to eight leagues," says Kyle Whelliston, the bard of themidmajors, who runs the website midmajority.com. "For me it's about theresources. How much money does a school put toward basketball? And are they onTV all the time?"

By that measure,Gonzaga may already have moved beyond the realm of midmajordom. Then again, theZags have never had a McDonald's All-American recruit (even Morrison, thecountry's leading scorer, was not a top 100 player as a high school senior),they play in the indisputably midmajor West Coast Conference, and they stillsympathize with the little guy. For Gonzaga coach Mark Few, the impetus for theYear of the Midmajor was simply the committee's willingness to admit more ofhis deserving brethren into the tournament. All these teams needed, after somany years of big-conference favoritism, was the chance to prove their worth onthe national stage. "In the past it was like we were non-fraternity guyswho were forbidden from dating sorority girls," Few says. "Now thereare certainly more of us non-frat guys at the party, so our chances of walkingout with a good-looking Tri Delt are a lot better."

"We're not onTV as much, and it's hard to recruit [elite] kids," says Turgeon. "Thiswill help us on Selection Sunday next year. When more [midmajors] do well andget to the Sweet 16, [the selection committee] will say, 'Maybe we need to takethis team instead of a BCS school.'"

The performance gapbetween the haves and the have-nots has narrowed for several reasons. Forstarters, coaches cite the NCAA's reduction of scholarships from 15 to 13 perteam in 1994, which meant the Big East schools alone had 32 fewer scholarshipplayers this season than they would have had 12 years ago. "The two guyswho would have been sitting on the bench at North Carolina or Duke are nowplaying for Montana or Gonzaga," says Boston College associate head coachBill Coen. And unlike high-profile programs, midmajors typically don't loseplayers early to the NBA, so they can tap into the experience of theirupperclassmen when it counts. "A senior at a good midmajor is so much morephysically and mentally mature than a freshman or sophomore in the Big East orthe ACC," says Villanova coach Jay Wright, "and it makes a difference,especially in a big game."

AAU basketball hasalso largely removed the fear factor for midmajor players. "A lot of guysprobably used to look at a No. 1 seed, see the jersey and think, Those are theguys we saw on TV," says Duke freshman forward Josh McRoberts. "Nowthey think, I played against this guy in high school, so I'm not scared ofhim." Outgoing Indiana coach Mike Davis compares that newfound midmajorfearlessness with the kind shown toward U.S. national teams these days ininternational competition.

But if that's thecase, why hasn't a midmajor enjoyed its Final Four breakthrough yet? What is itabout Week 2 that eradicates the upset bug? "You just can't overcome thetalent level," says Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who tookWisconsin-Milwaukee to the regional semis last year before falling totop-seeded Illinois. "There finally becomes a separation where the size,the athleticism and the depth is just too much." What's more, midmajorstoday have to win more games to reach the Final Four than they did before thefield expanded in 1985. "When I was at Northeastern we played Ohio Stateand beat them," says UConn coach Jim Calhoun, "but we couldn't havebeaten four Big Ten [caliber] teams in a row."

Yet the mostserious challenge to a midmajor Final Four hopeful may take place off the courtin the days following a second-round win. "The biggest [problem] was themedia attention," says Valparaiso coach Homer Drew, whose Crusaders reachedthe Sweet 16 in 1998. "We had people meeting our plane in Chicago, andplayers were getting calls in their dorm rooms from reporters and long-lostrelatives asking for tickets." Miami (Ohio) coach Charlie Coles says hisRedHawks were "overwhelmed" by the media crush (including an SI cover)when they reached the Sweet 16 in '99, disrupting the team's preparation."I'd like to have those five days back," he says. "It's tough tounderstand what it's like unless you're at Duke, where it's a regular thing. Icould tell when the [regional semifinal] game started that our mental focuswasn't the same as it had been before."

Meanwhile,second-week letdowns are inevitable for some midmajors that feel (perhapsrightly) that no matter what happens, their tournament has already been asuccess. "I always say the Sweet 16 is as good as a national championshipto most of these guys," says Whelliston, a sort of midmajor Jack Kerouacwho had driven 4,000 miles a week covering 92 far-flung games through Sunday.(He sleeps in his car at truck stops and heists wi-fi from hotel parkinglots.)

Whelliston arguesthat it would take a "perfect storm" of events to send a midmajor tothe Final Four, but the chances are better in 2006 than they've been at anytime since 1979. "If [a midmajor] is going to get all the way toIndianapolis," says Romar, "it's probably going to be a team that's hadsome success in the tournament recently, that maybe has some seniors who'vebeen through this before. It takes some experience, some good matchups and someluck."

The most likelycandidate is Gonzaga, a veteran team that bears a striking resemblance toIndiana State's 1979 national runner-up, with Morrison (Reilly, page 76) in theLarry Bird role. George Mason already beat Wichita State on the road inFebruary and could cause fits for UConn or Washington in a potential regionalfinal, the same way it did for North Carolina. As for the Shockers and Bradley,the CBS guys (along with Kansas, Pittsburgh, Seton Hall and Tennessee) alreadylearned the hard way: Count out the Valley at your own peril.

In the raucousWichita State locker room last Saturday, former NBA star Xavier McDaniel, theShockers' most famous hoops alum, surveyed the scene with palpable pride."These guys are doing something I couldn't do in college," he said."If they go to the Final Four you can bet I'll be in Indianapolis--and atthis point anything is possible." McDaniel may have had one of the greatcameos by an athlete in movie history (he played himself in 1992's Singles),but he knows better than anyone that these Shockers aren't playing a bit partin the madness of March. In the Year of the Underdog, listen to the X-Man: Themidmajors are coming.

SI.COM

More Sweet 16 coverage, including exclusive postgameanalysis from SI experts, at SI.com.

PHOTOPhotograph by John W. McDonough RISING TOTHE OCCASION Gonzaga proved it's more than a one-man show, ousting Indiana90-80 in the second round despite getting only 14 points from Morrison(3).
PHOTOBOB ROSATOOUT OF REACH The second-seeded Vols saw their title hopes vanish against Ogirri (right) and the shockingly tough Shockers. PHOTOGREG NELSONELBOWED ASIDE Defending champ North Carolina, heavily dependent on freshmen, was ousted by Will Thomas (34) and his more veteran Patriots teammates. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERLUCKY 13 Tony Bennett (5) left his heart on the floor as the fast-breaking Braves, a No. 13 seed, ran past fifth-seeded Pitt.

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