Beware the Eagles

March 19, 2007
March 19, 2007

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March 19, 2007

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2007 NCAA Tournament Preview
NCAA 2007 Tournament Preview
Pro Basketball

Beware the Eagles

After a pair of near misses in the first round, Winthrop may be this year's George Mason, the anonymous mid-major that goes on a surprising run

Forget aboutwhat's-her-name, that girl from the fairy tale whose name pops up so often thistime of year. She really doesn't belong in this picture, anyway. The NCAAtournament is no Disney movie, and the relatively obscure teams who inevitablyspice up the proceedings are not enchanting characters who've misplaced theirglass slippers. They're potential assassins, with high-seeded teams in theircrosshairs. Anyone tuning in to watch the powerhouses at the top of thebrackets--Florida, North Carolina, Ohio State and Kansas--should be advisedthat the tournament is for mature audiences. Championship dreams can be killedand gaudy records scarred. There are even graphic scenes of choking.

This is an article from the March 19, 2007 issue Original Layout

That adult contentis usually instigated by the so-called mid-major teams, the ones that areafterthoughts most of the year but now weigh heavily on the minds of anyonefilling out a bracket. Suppose the law of averages finally kicks in forWinthrop, a team with a tough, experienced shooting guard (6'5" TorrellMartin), a multiskilled big man (6'10" Craig Bradshaw) and a string of nearmisses against top competition? What if Albany plays with the same kind ofconfidence it did in a 2006 first-round game, when as a No. 16 seed it ledConnecticut with seven minutes left? Did Virginia Commonwealth--which beat lastyear's tournament giant killer, George Mason, in the Colonial AthleticAssociation championship game--steal some of Mason's upset magic?

"[Mid-majors]are always the scariest teams in the tournament," says UConn coach JimCalhoun, whose top-seeded Huskies fell to George Mason last year in a regionalfinal. "They're usually more talented than they've been given credit for,and they're playing with nothing to lose. I cannot think of a more dangerouscombination."

UConn, of course,wasn't the only high seed to be Mason-ized last March. The 11th-seeded Patriotsalso knocked off heavily favored Michigan State, defending champion NorthCarolina and fellow upstart middie Wichita State on their memorable march tothe Final Four, raising the stakes for the mid-majors and emboldening them inthe process. They aren't just hoping to steal a first-round victory anymore;many of them have designs on making a deep run, and they don't care who knowsit. In early March, Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall made it clear that he wouldbe disappointed in a 10th seed, even though it would have been the highest spota Big South team has ever been awarded. "Get me the 36 teams who are betterthan us and we'll play them," he said. (The Eagles were seeded 11th in theMidwest.)

While severalmid-majors have good shots to reach the Sweet 16, the search is on for the nextPatriots act: the bracket buster that's a double-digit seed with no previoushistory of NCAA success, little hype and zero surefire NBA talent. Historytells us that any team slotted 14th or lower is almost certainly a pretender,which means we can say a quick goodbye to squads such as Central ConnecticutState and Eastern Kentucky. Gonzaga is a 10 seed in the West, but it has hadfour runs to the Sweet 16 in the last eight years. Southern Illinois's stiflingD, keyed by 6'7" wide-body Randal Falker, could carry the Salukis deep--butthen, that would be expected of a No. 4 in the West Regional. Usuallyunheralded Butler was ranked most of the season, having caught everyone'sattention by beating Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga in thepreseason NIT. And Nevada, a seventh seed in the South, has 6'11" seniorNick Fazekas, who averaged a double double and could be a first-round NBA draftpick in June.

Which brings usback to Winthrop. The Eagles, like Mason a year ago, are so obscure that onlythe most serious hoophead would know their history. A one-time women's collegewith an enrollment of 6,500 in Rock Hill, S.C., Winthrop didn't field a men'sbasketball team until the 1978--79 season. The program went nowhere untilMarshall took over in 1998; in nine years he has led the team to seven NCAAappearances.

The Eagles havenever won a tournament game, but they're getting close. As a 14th seed twoyears ago they led Gonzaga with less than four minutes left before losing by10. Last March they were tied with Tennessee in the final seconds before Volsguard Chris Lofton broke their hearts. Winthrop's only four losses this seasonwere all on the road to ranked teams--North Carolina, Maryland, Wisconsin andTexas A&M. Yet the Eagles didn't crack the Top 25 until the final week ofthe regular season, so their anonymity is mostly intact. "The main thingis, we've played enough big-name schools that we're not intimidated byanybody," says Martin, who had 25 points against North Carolina and 31 inan overtime loss at Wisconsin.

No team in thetournament has more of that quietly explosive, George Mason feel than Winthrop.The Eagles, who face sixth-seeded Notre Dame in a first-round matchup thisFriday in Spokane, could disappear without a trace on the first weekend--orspill big-name blood. "I don't know about going to the Final Four, butsomebody's going to shake this tournament up," says Marshall. "It mightbe us; it might not. But you know that team is out there."


Major Impact
Get more inside dish from Bill Trocchi on which midmajors you should pick andwhich teams have the most favorable draws. ONLY AT SI.COM

Mid-majors are often more talented than they get creditfor and have nothing to lose, says Calhoun, who adds, "I cannot think of amore DANGEROUS COMBINATION."
PHOTOPhotograph by Willis Glassgow--WG Sports Photos/US PRESSWIREMEANSTREAK Reserve guard Antwon Harris (1) & Co. enter the tournament on aroll, having won 18 consecutive games.PHOTOCHUCK BURTON/AP PHOTOBIRDWATCHING
The Eagles have made seven trips to the NCAAs in nine seasons, but Marshall isstill looking for his first win.
Ranked early on, Southern Illinois and Butler, who tangled in February, won'tsneak up on anybody.