Originally created 03/15/05

Small schools hopeful for tournament



Fairleigh Dickinson coach Tom Green was going over potential NCAA Tournament matchups, daydreaming about his Knights playing Wake Forest. Or Washington. Maybe even North Carolina.

Daydreaming? Sounds more like a nightmare. And 16th-seeded FDU wound up even worse than Green imagined, facing the biggest seed of them all, overall No. 1 Illinois on Thursday.

"Realistically, we know what a long shot it is," Green said Monday. "It's a huge challenge, to say the least."

That's life for the NCAA tournament's little guys. Getting a bid gives small schools like Fairleigh Dickinson, Richmond and Coppin State publicity and national exposure they'd never get otherwise. But teams seeded 15th and 16th don't get much of a chance to enjoy the limelight, usually gone by the end of the first round in a blowout to one of college basketball's powerhouses.

"I told our players earlier in the week ... we're going to have to upset somebody," said Travis Ford, whose 15th-seeded Eastern Kentucky squad goes up against No. 2 seed Kentucky on Thursday.

"We're going to be an underdog, I can guarantee you that."

No 16th seed has ever beaten a No. 1 since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, and only four No. 15s have upended a second seed. Richmond beat Syracuse, 73-69, in 1991; Santa Clara upset Arizona, 64-61, in 1993; Coppin State stunned South Carolina, 78-65, in 1997; and Hampton surprised Iowa State, 58-57, in 2001.

But those few upsets are enough to give every small school hope, no matter how faint.

"It's happened four times for a reason. Because it's possible," said Michael Haney, a forward for Eastern Kentucky.

Haney isn't delusional, just optimistic. Those 15th seeds that pulled off the upsets were just like his team and the others that were hard at work Monday, preparing to play behemoths like Illinois, Duke, Oklahoma State and Connecticut.

OK, so Santa Clara had Steve Nash when the Broncos knocked off No. 2 Arizona in 1993. But these small schools have guys who can play, too. Haney ranks fifth in the country in field goal percentage, shooting a blistering 63 percent, while Obie Trotter of Alabama A&M - the ultimate sacrificial seed as one of the teams in the play-in game - leads the country in steals.

Besides, the law of averages says a No. 16 has to beat a No. 1 one of these days. Western Carolina came close in 1996, missing two shots in the closing seconds to fall to Purdue by a mere two points, 73-71. And in 1989, two No. 1s got scares from the lowly 16 seeds. Georgetown edged Princeton 50-49, as the Hoyas needed two blocks by Alonzo Mourning in the final six seconds. Oklahoma escaped with a 72-71 win after East Tennessee State missed a shot at the buzzer.

And, really, for those schools coming out of the smaller conferences, is there a difference between playing, say, top-seeded Duke and No. 4 Louisville?

"The top four to eight teams are all great," FDU forward Gordon Klaiber said Sunday night. "They're all going to play hard, so it doesn't matter who we play. We're going in there with complete confidence, believing in each other."

Still, they know they're long shots. In Illinois, Green's squad gets a team that has lost one measly game all year. And that was on a buzzer-beater. When Green and his assistants were making up their scouting report, they looked for even the slightest weakness, and came up empty.

"It's probably the biggest long shot ever as far as a 16 seed knocking off a team with one loss," Green acknowledged. "I'm going to tell them point-blank a 16 has never beaten a 1. I'll tell them about the history of the game a little bit."

But even if they wind up being just a footnote in the tournament, an answer to a trivia question only diehard fans will remember five years from now, there are worse things than being a 15th and 16th seed. They at least have one more game to play, while the other teams in their conference are parked on their couches.

This is their big chance to shine, too, with more attention on them in the next three or four days than the entire rest of the season. How many people knew Richmond's nickname was the Spiders before its big upset? Or that Coppin State was in Maryland?

And if one of the little guys does pull of an upset - or even makes a serious run - it's guaranteed an arena full of fans. When 15th-seeded Central Florida pulled within three midway through the second half of its first-round game against Pittsburgh last year, the Wisconsin fans at the Bradley Center jumped on the Golden Knights' bandwagon so fast it almost tipped over. Pitt eventually won, 53-44.

The Golden Knights are a 15th seed again this year, playing Connecticut on Friday.

"It's going to create a lot of publicity, not just statewide but nationally, judging by the amount of requests I've had this morning," Ford said. "That's definitely something that's going to come out of this, for sure."

And maybe this will be the year for a historic upset.

"You'd like to think it's going to happen someday, but it hasn't happened in 20 years," Green said. "Hopefully it'll happen in my lifetime, but we'll see."