NCAA Tournament: OBW’s favorite Cinderellas

T.J. Sorrentine. Photo Credit: Vermont Athletics / Sally McCay
T.J. Sorrentine. Photo Credit: Vermont Athletics / Sally McCay

This year’s NCAA Tournament is a tad short on the Cinderella story.

UCLA is the worst seed in the Sweet 16 at No. 11, and we all know the Bruins’ storied history. Wichita State and Gonzaga are the only Sweet 16 teams that don’t hail from a power conference. Neither could really be considered a Cinderella anymore, anyway, not with the Shockers two years removed from a Final Four, one year from a No. 1 seed and not even a week from a top-15 national ranking, and not with the Bulldogs, a No. 2 seed.

So Sam Perkins and Doric Sam took a trip down memory lane, recounting their favorite Cinderella stories from NCAA Tournaments past.

Sam Perkins

This is a really tough one for me. Although my earliest college hoops memories are of rooting on “Tark the Shark,” Larry “Grandmama” Johnson and the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, and I grew up in the John Calipari “Refuse to Lose” UMass Minutemen family (where my father played college hoops way back in the day), I’ve always been a fan of college basketball’s Cinderellas and underdogs, so choosing just one is hard.

I have to give honorable mention to the Casey Calvary/Matt Santangelo/Quinton Hall “The Slipper Still Fits” Gonzaga team of the 98-99 season that went to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed — THE team in which the entire subsequent Bulldogs program has built upon. That was one hell of a tough, physical, gritty team that showed no fear against the college hoops big boys, knocking off No. 7 Minnesota, No. 2 Stanford and then a Florida team featuring about a half-dozen future NBA players — I can still remember watching that whole run as a high school freshman, screaming at my TV with my brother, my good friend Noah, and his younger brother.

Also major props to the Bryce Drew Valparaiso team of a year earlier that went to the Sweet 16 as a No. 13 seed, shocking No. 4 Mississippi with “The Shot” in the opening round, before beating Florida State. That Valpo team had so many great story lines — Drew playing for his father, Homer, and drilling big shot after big shot, including one of the most improbable, full-court inbounds plays in college hoops history; twins Bill an Bob Jenkins; foreign 7-footers Anatas “Tony” Vilcinskas (Lithuania) and Zoran Viskovic (Croatia) chief among them.

The University of Rhode Island team that ended Valparaiso’s magical run in 1998 also deserves recognition. The 1997-1998 Rams were one of the most fun teams I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Yes, they were a No. 8 seed, and thus in the top half of their bracket, and they came from the Atlantic-10 at the tail end of the league’s golden era when the A-10 was putting anywhere from 4-6 teams in the NCAA Tournament. But this was a URI squad that was overlooked and undervalued in its own league, and a squad that no one — and I mean no one outside of the that locker room — expected to go to the Elite Eight and be a minute and a half (and essentially a blown inbounds) away from the Final Four. The Rams were super physical and extremely talented, with 6-foot-5 power forward Antonio Reynolds-Dean bringing toughness, intangibles and a heart the size of a basketball, playing alongside a dynamic backcourt of Cuttino Mobley and pint-sized Tyson Wheeler. But they were also selfless and a team that’s sum remained far greater than its individual parts.

However, my favorite Cinderella of all time remains the 2004-2005 Vermont Catamounts. Don’t get me wrong, the 04-05 Catamounts don’t have the NCAA Tournament resume of the teams listed above — they won a grand total of one game. But the Taylor Coppenrath/T.J. Sorrentine Catamounts will forever have a special place in my heart because they were a team that I got to know on a far deeper level than any other Cinderella. I watched the senior class that carried them from the time they were wet behind the ears freshmen (“puppies” as head coach Tom Brennan called them) to the final horn of their careers — a second round (back when the “second round” was the field of 32) loss to Michigan State.

The Catamounts had legitimate high-major level stars in Coppenrath, a 6-foot-9 backwoods Paul Bunyon of sorts who was country strong and could score from anywhere on the floor, and Sorrentine, a scrappy, smack-talking spark plug who played with crazy swag and had range from anywhere inside the state line. Both Coppenrath and Sorrentine were completely overlooked by the basketball establishment, and both used that to fuel them through their careers.

But the Catamounts were more than a two-man team (although both Coppernath and Sorrentine were completely irreplaceable) with the rest of the roster not only knowing and embracing their respective roles, but excelling at them (with players like Germain Mopa-Njila and David Hehn bringing tenacious defense and rebounding).

What was great about the 04-05 UVM squad was that they spent the entire season with a bullseye on their backs, not only in the tiny America East Conference, but on the national level, with feature articles in both ESPN the Magazine and SI, while also being followed around by a camera crew for ESPN’s “The Season” and playing in the marquee matchup of the inaugural Bracket Buster. And they responded every time.

Their 60-57 shocker over Syracuse was one of the most amazing events I’ve ever experienced, with the Orange selling out to stop Coppenrath and Sorrentine at all costs, and Mopa-Njila stepping up to have the best game of his career in the biggest game of his life (20 points on 9-of-10 shooting to go with nine rebounds, five assists and four steals). And, of course, there was Coppenrath knocking down the elbow jumper to force overtime and Sorrentine’s “nah, coach, I got this” shot “from the parking lot” to win the game.

The Catamounts were the ultimate underdog that grabbed their one, fleeting, shining moment. They were the embodiment of why I love March Madness. They also had an incredibly special meaning for me, as I had started watching Vermont with my father three years earlier (he was a big fan of the late Trevor Gaines and of Sorrentine), and had continued to watch them after he was killed in a car accident in January of 2004.

The year since had been one of the worst of my life, and following the America East had given me one final connection to him that couldn’t be severed by death or heartbreak, and the impact of Vermont’s win meant much more in keeping his memory alive than I can put into words.

Doric Sam
I’m probably exposing myself as a young’n of the OBW staff with this pick, but I remember being completely encapsulated with the 2010-11 VCU team during my senior year at Stony Brook. I even used them as the subject of an assignment in a broadcast journalism class, having my professor pretend to be Shaka Smart while I interviewed her (I aced that assignment, by the way).

Shaka Smart just had this energy and swagger about him — it was fun watching a young coach, one who doesn’t wear a suit jacket during games as if it’s a fashion statement, running up and down the sidelines like a madman, something not normally seen from coaches on the big stage. The advent of the “First Four” that year seemed ridiculous to me at first, but it helped the Rams make history by being the first team to win five games to reach the Final Four. Their wins over Georgetown, Purdue and Florida State were impressive, but when they ran into No. 1 Kansas in the Elite Eight, I thought, “There’s no way.” But then power forward Jamie Skeen dominated inside and outside (four three-pointers) against the twin towers of Marcus and Markieff Morris on his way to 26 points and 10 rebounds.

The other true Cinderella team during my college basketball fandom was the 2005-06 George Mason team, but all that team really did was make me want to set fire to my bracket and say, “Who the f— is George Mason?” I wanted to know who VCU was, making that Rams team my favorite Cinderella squad of all-time.

CAA coaches talk Dean Smith’s legacy, impact

It sounds so cliché: Dean Smith left an impact on everyone who ever picked up a basketball during his lifetime. It is a phrase — in one incarnate or another — that has flooded the airwaves, taken over television screens and been displayed across print articles every day since the legendary coach passed away at the age of 83 on Feb. 7.

Yet with each passing hour — and the thousands of new stories, told by players and coaches from every level of the game that continue to roll in — it is obvious that Smith transcended the tired sports clichés about the impact a coach can leave on everyone he comes in contact with and turned them into the gospel truth.

Even in the Colonial Athletic Association — a conference akin to a single grain of sand sitting at the bottom of the great wide Atlantic Ocean that is the ACC, the conference Smith called home patrolling the sidelines for the University of North Carolina for nearly four decades — Smith’s lasting legacy was paramount.

On Tuesday morning, all 10 CAA head coaches took time out of their weekly teleconference to talk about the impact Smith had left on them, and all — ranging from William & Mary head coach Tony Schaver, who played for four years as a walk-on under Smith, to James Madison’s Matt Brady, who only knew Smith as a fan from afar — were touching and unique.

“Other than my father, there has never been a male figure who has influenced me more than Dean has. Today, I look at it much more as a person than as a coach,” said Shaver, who played for Smith from 1972-1976. “He was such a great coach and such a great teacher. He was an incredible teacher of the game of basketball and how to live your life.“

“I never met coach Smith,” said Brady, “[But] he’s had such a tremendous impact not only on his program and the players he’s touched, but on everybody who aspired to be a basketball coach.”

Smith’s Hall of Fame career at North Carolina literally revolutionized the game, with the coach implementing systems and schemes that remain a part of the college landscape, while simultaneously continuing to evolve his system to suit the strengths of his roster every season.

“He taught us so much about basketball,” said UNC Wilmington head coach Kevin Keatts. “When you look at it, I would say he’s a trendsetter. There’s not a program that you play in any conference that’s not running the Carolina back screens, the backdoors and everything else.”

With 879 career wins, 17 ACC regular-season titles, 13 ACC tournament championships, 11 Final Fours and two National Championships (1982 and 1993), Smith’s career will always be know for his gaudy numbers. But to Towson head coach Pat Skerry, Smith will forever be linked to a different kind of numbers, as the coach analyzed advanced statistics long before the term “sabermetrics” had ever been coined.

“It’s impressive that he was kind of ahead of the game with the analytics and the advanced stats,” said Skerry.

But for all of the coaches who had the opportunity to meet him, even in passing, the biggest impact Smith left had nothing to do with Xs and Os, but how he was as a man.

“As everyone keeps saying, it was the human side of him. The basketball side of him speaks for itself,” said Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich, who got to know Smith when he was working as an assistant at Dematha Catholic High School in Maryland in the late 70s and early 80s.

“A few years later when I was an assistant at La Salle I had just had twins, and I didn’t think he knew about it and he came up to me and asked all about them… he was an amazing person,” Mihalich remembered.

“I think his biggest thing was the way he maintained relationships with everybody and was always looking to help,” said Northeastern head coach Bill Coen.

Coen coached against Smith’s Tar Heels in the 1993 NCAA tournament as a University of Rhode Island assistant.

“I think at the 16-minute mark we were up 11-10 and Dean Smith called a timeout and we thought we were doing pretty well, and by halftime we were down by about 40,” laughed Coen.

Drexel head coach Bruiser Flint first met Smith when he was a young kid, all of 10 or maybe 11 years old, in Philadelphia. His father was helping the legendary coach recruit a local player.

“He sent me a poster of the Carolina team that lost in the Final Four. Every player signed it… At 10 years old that’s huge,” said Flint, noticeable pride in his voice all these years later. “Once I got in coaching, those guys actually talked about when they met me when I was 10 years old. [Smith] would say, ‘I remember you,’ and ask me how my dad was… that always put a special place in my heart about Dean Smith.”

But it was Smith’s former player, Shaver, on whom Smith left the biggest impact.

“There’s probably two percent of things that I’ve done in my career that is not exactly like the way he did them,” said Shaver. “He treated everybody fairly. He cared about everybody that was in his program, and I think the loyalty that he built because of that was the most impressive thing about his time at North Carolina.

“How he cared about people, and how he took a stand about what he thought was right. That goes from the Civil Rights movement right down to how he coached.”

For every CAA coach, from his surrogate son in Shaver to those who had never met him, Smith left behind an impossible void to fully fill, and an indelible impact that will never go away.

“When I woke up on Sunday to hear that he passed, it was such a said day because of all the players and people he touched,” said Keatts. “We’re going to miss him.”

“But,” said Coen, “his legacy will live on.”