Underdogs Trying to Break up Brackets

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Butler did it. So did Santa Clara, Vermont, Bucknell and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. George Mason redefined the art of the NCAA tournament upset last season with its improbable Final Four run.

For those schools lacking exposure, the NCAA tournament is a chance to show a national audience they can break up tournament brackets from coast to coast.

One win creates a lifetime memory. Two wins makes them a national darling. Four wins puts them in the rarest of classes, mentioned with the likes of North Carolina, Duke, UCLA or Kansas -- for one year anyway.

To those who live and breathe mid-major basketball, it takes more than luck.

"I call it the four Cs," George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said Monday. "First, you have to have great cohesiveness and chemistry. Then you have to have a team that's totally committed to making the sacrifices necessary to win."

"Third," he continued, "you have to be able to communicate on the floor because if you don't, with the crowds, it's easy to get off on a different page. And, most important, is confidence. You have to believe in yourself and your teammates."

What the George Masons of college basketball have demonstrated recently is that they will be more than a speed bump to the second round for those so-called power schools.

Remember Vermont and Bucknell? Or perhaps Hampton and Wisconsin-Milwaukee? Fans at Syracuse, Kansas, Iowa State and Alabama may never forget them.

This year's burning question: Who's next?

Start with experienced teams, winnow the field by finding those that have had success or near success on big stages, look for teams with balanced scoring. Then find teams that have solid guards and backcourt depth.

"You have to have good players, first," Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson said. "Looking back when Santa Clara had Steve Nash, and you look at Arizona's guards. Who had the better player? College basketball is a guards game, and if Nash played in college now, he could play for any team."

Sampson understands how close those cuts can be. At Oklahoma, in 2001, Sampson's fourth-seeded Sooners lost to 13th-seeded Indiana State in overtime. The next year, Oklahoma reached the Final Four in Atlanta.

Larranaga believes guard play and balanced scoring is critical to short-term success in the tournament. To continue advancing takes solid post players, too.

Teams with postseason experience and dominated by juniors and seniors tend to play better. Take 2003, when Notre Dame survived Wisconsin-Milwaukee's upset bid as the buzzer sounded. The loss helped the Panthers prepare for their next NCAA trip in 2005, and Bruce Pearl's team upset Alabama in the first round and Boston College in the second round that year before losing to eventual runner-up Illinois in the regional semifinals.

This year's field offers a handful of possibilities that fit the model.

-- This is the sixth straight NCAA bid for fourth-seeded Southern Illinois, which reached the regional semifinals in 2002. The Salukis lost to West Virginia in the first round last year but have one of the nation's top defenses and good guards. If they shoot well, they could challenge anyone. Southern Illinois faces Holy Cross on Friday.

-- Butler earned its highest seed ever, a No. 5 in the Midwest Regional. The Bulldogs, a regional semifinalist in 2003, are one of those experienced, guard-dominated teams that has already proved it can win in tourney play. Butler won the NIT Season Tip-Off title by beating Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga, then beat Kent State less than 24 hours after the championship game in Indianapolis.

"It's been a fun and magical year, and, at the same time, it's a chance to start anew," coach Todd Lickliter said.

-- Nevada, the No. 7 seed in South, has one of the nation's top inside players in forward Nick Fazekas and is making its fourth straight NCAA trip. It reached the regional semis in 2004, thanks in part to Fazekas, before a 5-point loss to eventual runner-up Georgia Tech. The Wolf Pack was ranked No. 10 last week before its loss in the Western Athletic Conference tournament.

-- Creighton, which faces Nevada, on Friday also could be dangerous. The Bluejays finished strong, beating Southern Illinois in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game and is making its seventh NCAA appearance since 1999 and expects to duplicate first-round wins over Louisville in 99 and Florida in 2002.

-- Winthrop, the Big South champion, moved up to No. 24 in last week's Top 25 and could follow the lead of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A year ago, the Eagles nearly knocked off Tennessee in the first round, losing 63-61 on Chris Lofton's buzzer-beater. This year, the No. 11 seed in the Midwest, gets Notre Dame on Friday.

-- And Larranaga thinks Old Dominion, which plays Butler on Thursday, looks a lot like his 2006 George Mason squad, including a loss in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. The Monarchs open against Butler on Thursday.

"We don't feel like we don't belong, but we don't feel like we're the Shrine Circus, either," coach Blaine Taylor said before his Monarchs got a No. 12 seed Sunday.

Selection committee chairman Gary Walters said Monday the panel that picks the teams doesn't take those factors into account when making decisions.

But if there's one team that could replicate George Mason run from last year, Larranaga has a choice.

"There is one team that had a phenomenal regular season and didn't win its conference tournament, and we didn't, either -- and that's Southern Illinois," Larranaga said. "Butler may be another, but they play Old Dominion and I always believe in my conference."


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