Hi 71 / Lo 50
69, Issue 109, Thursday, March 11, 2004
Big Dance is time for little guys
Small schools often yield biggest drama; Stanford, St. Joseph's still the teams to beat
by Daniel Huron
Ask the average college basketball fan about the teams at Virginia Commonwealth, Manhattan or Liberty, and you're bound to get more than a few blank stares. They come from conferences like the Colonial, the Metro-Atlantic and the Big South, leagues ignored by nearly everyone for most of the year.
They are forgotten, pushed aside for powerhouses like Duke, Arizona and North Carolina, but now is their time to shine. Now is the time for these forgotten schools from obscure conferences to earn their spot in the NCAA tournament and dream of busting brackets.
March Madness has begun.
The aforementioned schools are among 12 teams who have already earned automatic bids into the big tournament. East Tennessee State, Central Florida, Murray State, Northern Iowa, Valparaiso, Louisiana-Lafayette and of Illinois-Chicago all won their respective conference tournaments to earn their spots, while Princeton earned its trip by winning the Ivy League's regular-season title.
For the fifth time in six years, Gonzaga has earned a spot in the tournament by winning the West Coast Conference. The Bulldogs, ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press poll, struggled in their semifinal game against Santa Clara on Saturday. Trailing most of the way, Gonzaga needed a put-in by Ronny Turiaf with five seconds left to earn a 63-62 victory.
Turiaf scored 29 points and added 14 rebounds as the Bulldogs beat Saint Mary's in the finals, 84-71. Sunday's victory was their 20th in a row. The team finished the season 27-2. The two loses were to No. 1 Saint Joseph's and No. 2 Stanford.
On more than a few occasions this season, the Stanford Cardinal seemed on the verge of defeat, but fate appeared to be on their side.
Thursday against Washington State, the Cardinal trailed by two as time slipped away. Options were running low for Matt Lottich when he launched a three-point-prayer. The shot was good, and the top-ranked Cardinals remained undefeated.
Could destiny be on Stanford's side? Could they possibly run through the season undefeated?
Saturday, Washington provided the formula for beating the Cardinal: Don't even give them a chance.
The Cardinals' bid to become the first team to go through the Pacific-10 season undefeated was upended by the Huskies. Stanford shot 39 percent from the field and committed 18 turnovers as the Cardinals fell 62-75.
Saint Joseph's dreams of perfection live on, however. The team enters this week's Atlantic 10 tournament hoping to become the first team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated since Nevada-Las Vegas in 1991 (UNLV lost to eventual-champion Duke in the national semi-final that season).
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