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Once Upon A Time
GRANT WAHL
March 27, 2006
A trio of Cinderellas--Bradley, George Mason and Wichita State--joined dominant midmajor Gonzaga in a historic Sweet 16. Can the fairy tale continue all the way to the Final Four?
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March 27, 2006

Once Upon A Time

A trio of Cinderellas--Bradley, George Mason and Wichita State--joined dominant midmajor Gonzaga in a historic Sweet 16. Can the fairy tale continue all the way to the Final Four?

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Tennessee was toast, Rocky Toppled by a band of no-name Shockers, but Wichita State guard Karon Bradley wanted even more. In 2003 Bradley was a three-point-shooting reserve for Marquette during its magical Final Four run, and he knows exactly what it takes to reach the college hoops promised land. "I've been telling all the guys that we have the potential to go to Indianapolis," the junior transfer said after his cold-blooded runner had put the seventh-seeded Shockers up for good in their 80-73 upset of the No. 2--seeded Volunteers last Saturday. "I see some of the same characteristics we had at Marquette on this team." � Wait a second.... Wichita State is talking Final Four? No lie: In China it may be the Year of the Dog, but in Bracketville it's the Year of the Midmajor--or, if you're CBS broadcasters Billy Packer and Jim Nantz, the Year of the Horse's Ass. A week after the smug TV talking heads ripped the NCAA tournament committee for awarding three at-large bids to the ascendant Missouri Valley Conference and one to the Colonial Athletic Association, three teams from those non-BCS conferences (Bradley, George Mason and Wichita State) survived a wild opening week, smiting favored bullies from the ACC, Big East, Big 12 and SEC and joining fellow midmajor Gonzaga in a historic Sweet 16.

Not since 1979, when Indiana State and Penn became the last midmajors to reach the Final Four, had four teams from outside the traditional power conferences scrapped their way to the regional semifinals. So tantalizing is the possibility that it's worth asking: Is 2006 the year that a midmajor ends the three-decade-long drought and breaks through to the Final Four? "Sooner or later it's going to happen," says Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, "because the gap between the so-called midmajors and the bigger programs is getting smaller. I just hope it doesn't happen in our region."

He has reason to worry: If U-Dub upsets top-seeded UConn in Washington, D.C., on Friday, the Huskies would have to face either 11th-seeded George Mason (in a virtual home game for the Patriots) or Wichita State, either of which will be the first midmajor in the Elite Eight since Kent State in 2002. Just as George Mason jarred two reigning Final Four outfits ( Michigan State and North Carolina) last week, 13th-seeded Bradley knocked off a pair of power-conference heavyweights ( Kansas and Pittsburgh) and needs only to dispatch top-seeded Memphis (itself almost a midmajor) in Oakland on Thursday to set up a potential all-midmajor regional final against No. 3--seeded Gonzaga (which faces UCLA in the Round of 16).

The midmajor surge was sweet vindication for the open-minded tournament committee--and a stinging rebuke to CBS's Nantz and Packer, whose impassioned defense of the snubbed big-conference also-rans (see: Cincinnati, Florida State, Michigan) sounded as tone-deaf as arguing that Alex Rodriguez is underpaid. The charm of the NCAAs lies in its classic upsets, populist appeal and neutral-court democracy, a lesson the Eye Guys appeared to have forgotten. "I'm all for the little guy ... but it's gone way too far now," Nantz chirped after the bracket was announced, while Packer said the committee had "to be kidding" when it awarded the Valley and Colonial a combined six bids. "What's going to be great about this first week is what those six bids actually do in the first round," Packer concluded, and he was right, of course, just not in the way he intended.

The CBS commentators' backscratching for their power-conference partners dismayed champions of the little guys. "We were totally stunned," says Missouri Valley commissioner Doug Elgin, whose conference had finished a record-high sixth in the national RPI ratings. "It was clear that they were going on brand-name recognition, but what offended me the most was that Billy admitted he hadn't seen any of our games this season." By Sunday, as George Mason fans were chanting "Bil-ly Pac-ker!" in Dayton and choruses of "M-V-C!" rang out in Greensboro and Auburn Hills, at least Nantz had given the small-conference teams their due. "Obviously, the Missouri Valley has proven us wrong, so good for them," he told SI on Sunday. (Meanwhile, Packer remained largely silent on the subject, on and off the air.)

While CBS's A-Team was busy calling the wins of two familiar No. 1 seeds ( UConn and Villanova) in Philadelphia last week, there were countless golden midmajor moments which, like the MVC's games this year, Nantz and Packer no doubt missed. There was Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon challenging his Shockers during a huddle eight minutes into their upset of Tennessee: "I don't see any difference between this team and a Valley team. Don't look at what's written on their chest. Just go out and play!" There was George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, who told his Patriots during a mid-week practice that they needed to "visualize" what it would be like to win in the tournament, whereupon guard Jamar Butler and forward Jai Lewis responded by picking up a watercooler and dumping it on Larranaga's head. "We're visualizing the celebration," they told him, presaging their jubilation after coming back from an early 16-2 deficit to slay the Tar Heels.

There was Bradley coach Jim Les calling the bond among midmajors "a neat camaraderie" after his team had gotten a lift from hotel-mate Northwestern State following the 14th-seeded Jaguars' last-second takedown of No. 3 Iowa last Friday. "They were telling us, 'Hey, you're the next one. Go get an upset!'" says Les, whose Braves got two thanks to a gargantuan 28-point, seven-rebound effort by 7-foot sophomore center Patrick O'Bryant against Pittsburgh on Sunday. And there was Gonzaga junior forward Sean Mallon, who proved his team is hardly a one-man ( Adam Morrison) wrecking crew by going for 15 points and 10 boards in the Zags' 90-80 win against Indiana on Saturday. "You've been accused of being soft and weak. Do you think you've dispelled that notion?" a TV reporter asked Mallon afterward, to which he deadpanned, "I've never really heard that before, but now that I have, I hope so."

So resounding was the midmajors' triumph last week that it may very well hasten the demise of the term itself. The first documented use of "midmajor" appeared at least as far back as a 1977 Washington Post article quoting George Washington athletic director Jack Kvancz, who was then head men's basketball coach at Catholic University, and the exact definition has been in dispute ever since. "Now it seems to mean any school in a conference smaller than the Atlantic 10 or larger than the Southern Conference, and any team that does well in the bottom seven to eight leagues," says Kyle Whelliston, the bard of the midmajors, who runs the website midmajority.com. "For me it's about the resources. How much money does a school put toward basketball? And are they on TV all the time?"

By that measure, Gonzaga may already have moved beyond the realm of midmajordom. Then again, the Zags have never had a McDonald's All-American recruit (even Morrison, the country's leading scorer, was not a top 100 player as a high school senior), they play in the indisputably midmajor West Coast Conference, and they still sympathize with the little guy. For Gonzaga coach Mark Few, the impetus for the Year of the Midmajor was simply the committee's willingness to admit more of his deserving brethren into the tournament. All these teams needed, after so many years of big-conference favoritism, was the chance to prove their worth on the national stage. "In the past it was like we were non-fraternity guys who were forbidden from dating sorority girls," Few says. "Now there are certainly more of us non-frat guys at the party, so our chances of walking out with a good-looking Tri Delt are a lot better."

"We're not on TV as much, and it's hard to recruit [elite] kids," says Turgeon. "This will help us on Selection Sunday next year. When more [midmajors] do well and get to the Sweet 16, [the selection committee] will say, 'Maybe we need to take this team instead of a BCS school.'"

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