Mid-majors go through ups and downs in tourney

By Greg Trietley

‘ ‘ Small in number but strong on the court, mid-major college basketball teams upset some of… ‘ ‘ Small in number but strong on the court, mid-major college basketball teams upset some of the top teams in the nation and took others down to the wire this past weekend in true NCAA Tournament fashion. A mid-major is any program outside of the top six conferences in college basketball, which are the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC. ‘I watched [East Tennessee State] and said there’s no way this team is a 16 seed,’ said Pitt men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon after the Panthers hung on to defeat the Buccaneers 72-62. Nearly every Big East team in the Tournament faced the same tough mid-major matchups as Pittsburgh. The Midwest region’s No. 11-seeded Dayton from the Atlantic 10 conference stunned Pitt’s rival West Virginia 68-60. The Mountaineers had been 11-2 outside of Big East opponents. ‘We knew when it comes down to us versus them, it is not Big East versus [Atlantic 10],’ said Dayton forward Charles Little to the Associated Press after the win. ‘It is West Virginia vs. Dayton, and we will take our chances with that.’ Unheralded mid-major Utah State came within one point of upsetting Marquette. The No. 11-seeded Aggies, a 30-win team, qualified for the Tournament after winning the Western Athletic Conference tournament. ‘I think [Utah State] is the hardest team to prepare for of any in my career as an assistant or as a head coach,’ said Marquette coach Buzz Williams to the AP after the Golden Eagles escaped into the second round. Top overall seed, Louisville, found itself leading just 35-33 at halftime against play-in game winner Morehead State. The Cardinals pulled away in the second half to win, 74-54. ‘You look at the way Cal State Northridge has played and East Tennessee State, Morehead State, all these teams are playing tremendous basketball, and that’s what this tournament is all about,’ said Louisville coach Rick Pitino after the game. ‘We didn’t play bad in the first half. We shot 50 percent, and they hung right there with us.’ Cal State Northridge, a No. 15 seed, led Memphis with less than nine minutes to play. Memphis required 10 three-pointers in the game from sophomore guard Roburt Sallie to pull away, 81-70. ‘[Cal State Northridge] came out and made some shots,’ said Memphis senior guard Antonio Anderson to the AP. ‘That’s what they do.’ Tigers coach John Calipari noted the strength of mid-major conferences, including his team’s own Conference USA, after the game. ‘Our league is way better than everybody gives it credit,’ said Calipari. ‘[Cal State Northridge] played us like teams in our league play us, which is they’re not afraid, they battle, they go at us, and they were not going away.’ Cleveland State pulled off the biggest upset of the opening weekend. The Vikings, a No. 13 seed out of the Horizon League, defeated Wake Forest 84-69. The Demon Deacons had been ranked No. 1 at one point during the season. Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio believes mid-majors like Cleveland Sate have big-time basketball talent. ‘I think they’ve got some tough, hard-nosed kids,’ said Gaudio. ‘[Cleveland State senior guard] Cedric Jackson, we told our kids he could start for anybody in the ACC.’ Likewise, North Dakota State senior guard Ben Woodside ‘- in the state of North Dakota’s first Tournament appearance ‘- scored 37 points against defending champion Kansas. ‘I was surprised he was that good,’ said Kansas sophomore guard Tyrel Reed. ‘We watched a lot of tape of him, and we knew he was dangerous, but the stuff he showed us tonight, he showed he was a really good player. Really good.’ Unlike the cliche ‘we’re just happy to be here,’ many mid-majors are not satisfied being one-and-done anymore. ‘We’re just not happy to be here,’ said Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald. ‘We want to be dancing as long as we can.’ The No. 12-seeded Hilltoppers defeated No. 5-seeded Illinois, 76-72, before losing to fellow mid-major Gonzaga in the second round. Gonzaga, Xavier and Memphis, small-school powerhouses, are the only three mid-majors in the Sweet 16, as Dayton and Cleveland State joined Western Kentucky in the second-round loss column. Also falling in the second round was the Midwest’s No. 9-seeded Siena, which outlasted Ohio State in a double-overtime thriller in its first game. The Saints, hailing from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, fell to Louisville 79-72 in another close match for the Cardinals. ‘What I told our guys before the game is that Siena could compete in the Big East, be in the top half of the league, and I really meant it in watching them,’ said Pitino.