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Beware the Eagles
Phil Taylor
March 19, 2007
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
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March 19, 2007

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

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

That adult content is usually instigated by the so-called mid-major teams, the ones that are afterthoughts most of the year but now weigh heavily on the minds of anyone filling out a bracket. Suppose the law of averages finally kicks in for Winthrop, a team with a tough, experienced shooting guard (6'5" Torrell Martin), a multiskilled big man (6'10" Craig Bradshaw) and a string of near misses against top competition? What if Albany plays with the same kind of confidence it did in a 2006 first-round game, when as a No. 16 seed it led Connecticut with seven minutes left? Did Virginia Commonwealth--which beat last year's tournament giant killer, George Mason, in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game--steal some of Mason's upset magic?

"[Mid-majors] are always the scariest teams in the tournament," says UConn coach Jim Calhoun, whose top-seeded Huskies fell to George Mason last year in a regional final. "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 dangerous combination."

UConn, of course, wasn't the only high seed to be Mason-ized last March. The 11th-seeded Patriots also knocked off heavily favored Michigan State, defending champion North Carolina and fellow upstart middie Wichita State on their memorable march to the Final Four, raising the stakes for the mid-majors and emboldening them in the 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 knows it. In early March, Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall made it clear that he would be disappointed in a 10th seed, even though it would have been the highest spot a Big South team has ever been awarded. "Get me the 36 teams who are better than us and we'll play them," he said. (The Eagles were seeded 11th in the Midwest.)

While several mid-majors have good shots to reach the Sweet 16, the search is on for the next Patriots act: the bracket buster that's a double-digit seed with no previous history of NCAA success, little hype and zero surefire NBA talent. History tells 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 Connecticut State and Eastern Kentucky. Gonzaga is a 10 seed in the West, but it has had four runs to the Sweet 16 in the last eight years. Southern Illinois's stifling D, keyed by 6'7" wide-body Randal Falker, could carry the Salukis deep--but then, that would be expected of a No. 4 in the West Regional. Usually unheralded Butler was ranked most of the season, having caught everyone's attention by beating Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga in the preseason NIT. And Nevada, a seventh seed in the South, has 6'11" senior Nick Fazekas, who averaged a double double and could be a first-round NBA draft pick in June.

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

The Eagles have never won a tournament game, but they're getting close. As a 14th seed two years ago they led Gonzaga with less than four minutes left before losing by 10. Last March they were tied with Tennessee in the final seconds before Vols guard Chris Lofton broke their hearts. Winthrop's only four losses this season were all on the road to ranked teams-- North Carolina, Maryland, Wisconsin and Texas A&M. Yet the Eagles didn't crack the Top 25 until the final week of the regular season, so their anonymity is mostly intact. "The main thing is, we've played enough big-name schools that we're not intimidated by anybody," says Martin, who had 25 points against North Carolina and 31 in an overtime loss at Wisconsin.

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