NCAA Tournament: OBW’s favorite Sweet 16 games

Believe it or not, the NCAA Tournament is already down to 16 remaining teams. The Sweet 16 starts Thursday, and that got us thinking: what are our favorite Sweet 16 games we’ve watched?

Sam Perkins and Doric Sam recount theirs below.

Sam Perkins

My favorite all-time Sweet 16 matchup came when 13th-seeded Valparaiso and eighth-seeded Rhode Island met in the 1998 Midwest regional semifinal — a battle between the two big Cinderella stories of that year’s tournament. Seventeen years later, I still vividly remember watching this game, as an eighth grader, with my dad.

Valpo’s path to the Sweet 16 was well told, and, thanks to Bryce Drew’s game-winning long bomb in the opening round against Mississippi, remains well known today.

But the Rams were a great story in their own right. The roster was largely built by Al Skinner before he left for Boston College, and they remained together under new head coach Jim Harrick. They featured future NBAer Cuttino Mobley, but they were a sum-is-larger-than-its-parts squad led by the dynamic playmaking of pint-sized point guard Tyson Wheeler and the heart of undersized power forward Antonio Reynolds-Dean.

The Sweet 16 matchup between two teams that had been written off by just about everyone entering the tournament didn’t disappoint — truly one of those games where neither team deserved to walk away with an L. This was a 40 minute war between two teams who simply did not want to go home, with the Rams and the Crusaders throwing haymakers from the opening tip until the final horn.

Rhode Island opened the game up 50-39 with a little over 18 minutes remaining on a big dunk by center Luther Clay — a moment most thought would be the final nail in the Crusaders’ coffin — only for Valparaiso to get up off the mat and throw a flurry of punches, cutting the Rams’ lead down to one, 64-63, with 3:54 left. But Reynolds-Dean took over in the game’s final minutes, coming up with two huge blocks at the rim, while converting a 3-point play at the other end, giving the Rams a sliver of breathing room en route to a 74-68 win.

After the game, the Crusaders and their fans provided one final, magical March moment. With thousands of fans remaining in the arena, chanting, long after the final horn, the entire Valpo roster — from the players, to the coaches, to the trainers and managers, none of whom had a dry eye — returned to the court for a final curtain call.

Doric Sam

I had to get over the heartbreak of Syracuse losing to Butler earlier that night, and I couldn’t stand to watch basketball so I missed the first half of Kansas St. vs Xavier. I tuned back in at some point during the second half, right in time for the barrage of three-pointers.
I remember how many times Xavier’s Terrell Holloway got fouled before the referees finally blew their whistle as he heaved up a three-pointer at the end of regulation, calmly knocking down all three free throws to force overtime. Then came Jordan Crawford’s 35-foot bomb that swished through the basket at the end of the first overtime (editor’s note: “Crawford’s gotta hurry! Uh?! Ohhhh!!!!” — Gus Johnson, on the call). Finally Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen, who was unconscious all night with six 3-pointers, hit two treys in the second overtime to seal the 101-96 win for the Wildcats.
This game had so many improbable shots go in that I couldn’t help jumping up and down like a fan as each shot went in. Normally my interest in the entire tournament would have dwindled after Syracuse was eliminated, but this game was a nice pick-me-up that reminded me why college basketball is so magical and made me want to see what happens in the next game.

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.

North Dakota State’s A.J. Jacobson: His mother’s son

A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)
A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)

There’s a certain satisfaction college basketball fans get while watching a hometown kid competing for his hometown school. Depending on the closeness of the community, the player can be considered the son of an entire city.

In A.J. Jacobson’s case, it’s more like he’s the son of an entire state.

Jacobson grew up in Fargo, North Dakota and is the son of famed North Dakota State women’s basketball legend Pat (Smykowski) Jacobson, the all-time second-leading scorer in the program’s history. Now A.J. is carving his own path for the Bison as a redshirt freshman and second-leading scorer for a team headed to its second straight NCAA Tournament.

“He’s a Fargo kid and in a lot of ways, not to steal a nickname from Fred Hoiberg, but in a lot of ways he’s our Mayor,” North Dakota St. coach David Richman says. “He’s a Fargo kid who’s now playing here and he’s having success. He’s the North Dakota Class A all-time leading scorer, there’s a lot of expectations for him from a lot of people, but none greater than from himself and I think that’s what separates him.”

According to Jacobson, it was always a dream of his to attend North Dakota St., not to follow in his mother’s footsteps, but to truly experience the culture he had watched while growing up in Fargo.

“It was more me wanting to be a part of the North Dakota State family, the culture here is just unbelievable,” Jacobson says. “Obviously, being from Fargo played a role, but I didn’t really think about my mom going here in my decision-making… It’s home to me, that’s why I stayed around here and I love it here.”

But this isn’t your typical story of a men’s basketball player being pushed by his father to achieve the same athletic accomplishments. While Jacobson’s father David is very much part of the reason A.J. is the person he is, it was Pat who was the main part of the reason A.J. is the player he is. She would drive A.J. to the gym and stand under the basket as his personal rebounder, imparting her knowledge onto him.

“She was always pushing me to get better and pushing me to do things that other kids wouldn’t be doing,” Jacobson says of his mother’s influence on his athletic career. “She always said I need to finish with my left hand on the left side of the hoop, she forced me to use good form. She was always in my ear giving me positive encouragement and positive criticisms.”

A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)
A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)

“There’s no question, I think both his parents were big in making him who he is and making him the competitor that he is,” Richman says. “It’s an extremely competitive family, and that really set the tone and set the stage. Pat, his mom, is the second all-time leading scorer in the school’s women’s basketball history. When you grow up in that environment, you can’t help but pick up some things along the way.”

Playing in the shadow of his mother’s accomplishments, Jacobson says it makes him even more driven to forge his own path and leave his own mark on North Dakota St.

“It’s no pressure really, but it’s a little bit motivation,” he says. “She was one of the greatest players to ever play on the women’s side, and it’s something that I can aspire to be like. But it’s not any pressure, it’s more of a motivating tool.”

Richman saw that drive and motivation first-hand during Jacobson’s redshirt year.

“There was really a want to be great,” Richman says. “A.J. would have a tough practice, as a lot of true freshmen did, and he’d be in the gym at 8 a.m. the next morning working on something he didn’t do well. I think that’s the biggest thing—there’s a drive, there’s a want to not just be good but to be great by A.J., and that makes him special. Obviously he’s got good size at 6’6”, a high level of skill and he’s a really intelligent young man, but make no mistake, his best qualities are his want and his drive to be great.”

A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)
A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)

This year, Jacobson played a key role in leading the Bison to their second straight Summit League title, ranking second on the team with an average of 11.9 points and shooting 41 percent from three-point range. As one of two in-state players on the roster, Jacobson feels an immense sense of pride in helping to lead North Dakota St. to the promise land of the NCAA Tournament, but that pride isn’t new to him. He feels it every time he puts on his jersey with the letters “NDSU” on his chest.

“I want to go out there and compete for the North Dakota fans, obviously they like seeing a North Dakota kid on the team,” Jacobson says. “I grew up watching North Dakota State, I went to almost every single game I could go to, men’s and women’s. It was a dream of mine to come and play here and I was able to fulfill those dream and obviously it gives me a sense of pride in the culture here, the environment here and North Dakota State in general.”

“He’s grown up here, the community’s always been in his family. He’s been coming to this campus as long as we can remember, watching his mom and coming to our games. There’s no question, it’s a big part of what makes him successful,” Richman says. “Would he be successful at other programs? Absolutely, there’s no doubt in my mind. But here with the understanding of the makeup and the history and passion with him and his family, I think that adds to [the pride he feels].”

North Dakota St. received a No. 15 seed and will face No. 2 Gonzaga in the South Region on Friday. As the Bison go out with intentions to spoil some brackets, Jacobson relishes the opportunity to put North Dakota St., and the state of North Dakota, on the college basketball map.

“Obviously we want to get a win and go up there with a bang,” he says. “But we just want to go out there and compete and play hard and show the country what North Dakota State men’s basketball is all about.”

A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)
A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)

March Madness: Best Round of 64 matchups

The First Four is over, and we’re ready for the real March Madness to begin. Here are the matchups we’re looking forward to most in the Round of 64.

Midwest Region

Sam Perkins: No. 8 Cincinnati vs. No. 9 Purdue

Bearcat Octavius Ellis goes 6-foot-10 and about 240 pounds. He dunks a lot and punches shots. His boilermaker counterpart A.J. Hammons goes 7-foot, 260 pounds. He also dunks a lot and punches shots. Ellis’ backup, Coreontae DeBerry is 6-foot-10, 270 pounds. DeBerry’s counterpart and Hammons’ backup, Isaac Haas, is 7-foot, 297 pounds. Needless to say, there will be a whole lot of humanity in the low post. Beyond the bloodbath in the paint, neither Purdue nor Cincinnati features a true star, they both get everyone involved on offense, and this game could — and should — feature a lot of different lineups, changing defensive schemes, and selfless play. These are arguably the two most evenly matched teams in the entire Round of 64.

Doric Sam: No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No 14 Northeastern

I covered Northeastern once this season, and I was very impressed with the team’s poise. This veteran squad, led by Scott Eatherton, David Walker and Quincy Ford, will not whither under the bright lights of March Madness. The Huskies’ defense probably isn’t strong enough to stop the Fighting Irish, though, meaning we might be in for an old-fashioned shootout, which is always fun.

West Region

Sam Perkins: No. 5 Arkansas vs. No. 12 Wofford

This game looks like it could be a big-time battle of contrasts: Wofford is a sum-is-greater-than-its-parts mid-major that really gets after it on defense (24th in the nation in points allowed); Arkansas is a BCS program powered by a high-octane offense (16th in the nation in points per game, 12th in assists per game) that goes only as far as stars Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls will carry it. A battle on the low blocks between the 6-foot-11 Portis — a legitimate NBA-level talent — and Wofford power forward Lee Skinner (who at 6-foot-6 plays by the motto “heart over height”) could be an outstanding battle.

Doric Sam: No. 4 North Carolina vs. No. 13 Harvard

Out of the top-four seeds in every region, I think the Tar Heels were dealt the worst hand. Harvard is a sound defensive team and is not afraid of making the game ugly. Wesley Saunders is a baller in every sense of the word, and Siyani Chambers and Steve Moundou-Missi are studs. North Carolina should be on upset-alert.

East Region

Sam Perkins: No. 7 Michigan State vs. No. 10 Georgia

I’ve always been partial to teams that get after it on the glass and mix it up in the paint, and for all of their respective failings (and despite their power conference status, neither the Spartans nor the Bulldogs are close to being a complete team), both of these teams get after it on the glass and around the rim. Spartans Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine both top out at around 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, but they’re both tough as nails and get after it on the glass, and watching them battle it out with the Bulldogs’ Montenegrin enforcer Nemanja Djurisic (6-foot-8, 230 pounds) and in-state brawler Marcus Thornton (6-foot-8, 235 pounds) should be fun to say the least.

Doric Sam: No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 Albany

The Great Danes are a veteran team led by Sam Rowley and Peter Hooley and they have a strong supporting cast with Evan Singletary and Ray Sanders. Albany is well-coached by Will Brown, who always makes it known to his players that the pressure is greater for the higher-seeded team. That type of confidence gives the Great Danes a great chance at an upset, though they face a tough task in a strong Oklahoma team.

South Region

Sam Perkins: No. 5 Utah vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin

You might as well call this one the Goliaths vs the Lilliputians. Utah features two 7-footers and starts four players 6-foot-5 or taller. Stephen F. Austin has just two players on its entire roster above 6’6”, neither of whom play major minutes. A low-post battle between bearded Lumberjacks Thomas Walkup and Jacob Parker (6-foot-4 and 6-foot-6, respectively) and Utes 7-footer Jakob Poeltl could be one heck of a battle. But far beyond the visual disparities, this game features a slow, methodical offense (Stephen F. Austin) versus a slow, methodical defense (Utah).

Doric Sam: No. 5 Utah vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin

Everyone should tune in to this game to see the offensive machine that is Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks average 79.5 points and are tremendous on the offensive glass. Thomas Walkup (15.7 ppg.) and Jacob Parker (14.1 ppg.) give SFA a right-cross, left-hook 1-2 punch combo that can knock the daylights out of anyone. Utah is no slouch, either, as the Utes play strong defense (56.9 opp. ppg.), so this one should be fun.

Wofford’s Lee Skinner: ‘Heart Over Height’

Lee Skinner. (Courtesy Photo / Mark Olencki / Wofford College Athletics)
Lee Skinner. (Courtesy Photo / Mark Olencki / Wofford College Athletics)

Wofford senior Lee Skinner has been told he’s too small to play power forward his entire career. At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, his detractors may have had a point.

But instead of listening to all the negative static that surrounded him, Skinner let it fuel his play on the court.

“I just use it as motivation. I’ve never really been in the discussion of ‘Oh he’s a really good player, you have to watch out for him.’ I’ve always been on the other end like, ‘Oh, Skinner is gonna have a tough time matching up with so-and-so, he’s got two or three inches and 20 pounds on him,’” Skinner says. “But I love that challenge, it makes me better. I hate playing guys that are smaller than me, not that I can’t or don’t want to, but I love playing the goliaths and the giants so I can really show that it’s heart over height. Heart over height; I love that challenge.”

That chip on his shoulder helped him lead the Terriers to their second straight Southern Conference championship and NCAA Tournament berth. Skinner was named MVP of the SoCon tournament after dropping a team-high 17 points in a 67-64 win over Furman.

“It goes back to his basketball IQ—he’s got a great understanding of angles, he’s physical, he’s strong,” Wofford coach Mike Young says. “He masks [being undersized] with those characteristics. He’s got the heart of a mountain lion, and it’s because of that he finds himself in the right place more often than not.”

Skinner had been battling against circumstances larger than him long before he arrived at Wofford. He grew up in Lombard, Illinois as an only child raised by a single-mother.

“I grew up with a single parent, my mother, and struggled for a while—struggling with maintaining and having a guidance other than my mom, like a father figure,” he says. “I looked at sports as a gateway, a way to stay out of trouble.”

Skinner played basketball since he was in the eighth grade and says he stopped playing baseball after his sophomore year of high school. But his first love was football, which he played since he was four years old. As a wide receiver for Glenbard East High School, Skinner earned all-conference and all-area honors.

“Absolutely, I loved football,” Skinner says when asked if he misses football. “I really, really did. It was tied with basketball in my love for it, just the physicality and all of that. A lot of my friends played football growing up, and then when I get to Wofford I got a lot of friends here that play on the football team and with the school so small I run into them all the time. I go and check out the games and it’s hard not to miss it, for sure… I throw a football around every now and then, and sometimes I joke around with the guys on the football team here, just telling them they couldn’t guard me.”

After graduating, Skinner chose the squeaks of sneakers on the hardwood and the sounds of swishes through the basket over the clanks of helmets colliding on the field.

“I picked basketball to pursue after high school because I just felt like I loved it more,” he says.

Lee Skinner. (Courtesy Photo / Mark Olencki / Wofford College Athletics)
Lee Skinner. (Courtesy Photo / Mark Olencki / Wofford College Athletics)

He spent a prep year at Fork Union Military Academy, an experience unlike anything he’s ever gone through and something he says shaped the man he is today.

“It’s still a part of me that I didn’t have beforehand. They take away our phones, having no social media—when we got there they check your computer and they could tell if you’re on a blocked site,” he says. “So there was no communication really with the outside world other than a few minutes a day here and there. They totally strip you of who you are and what you were before you come in, and you come out a better person.

“It made me a better person—how I looked at things, how I treated people, how I treated myself, really put things into perspective and showed me what was important. Fork Union was amazing for me, I didn’t like it at the time but I love it now for what it did for me.”

Skinner was named to the all-SoCon second team after helping lead the Terriers to a 28-6 record. His impact on the team goes beyond the numbers he puts up on the court.

“He’s as fine a leader as we’ve ever had here,” Young says. “He’s the straw that stirs the drink for us; (Karl) Cochran gets a lot of attention, deservedly so, he’s a great player, but Skinner makes the train run.”

Wofford came out of nowhere to win the SoCon title last year, so winning it a second time gave Skinner and his teammates the validation they felt they deserved.

“Nobody expected us to win last year, so everybody said ‘Oh wow, they stole one,’ or ‘They came up lucky,’” Skinner says. “This year it was sweet because we started the conference number-one, we ended the conference number-one and we pretty much proved to everybody how hard we work and how we earned it and deserve it.”

Wofford was given a No. 12 seed in the West Region and will face fifth-seeded Arkansas on Thursday. Skinner looks back at his performance in the SoCon tournament and knows he will have to duplicate it if the Terriers hope to be successful.

“I think I was just a little more aggressive offensively; I know I’m gonna play defense every possession, every night every game,” he says. “If I’m out there screaming on defense and playing really tough and making plays for the team on the defensive end, then coming down and scoring every few possessions, I know that’s gonna have a huge impact on my team.”

This being Wofford’s second straight year in the Big Dance, Skinner says the Terriers aren’t just looking to take part, they’re going into the tournament to bust some brackets.

“We’re going to win as many games as we can,” he says. “Last year we got the chance to enjoy the experience, but this year we’ve been there before and we’re an even better team than we were, so I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”

Lee Skinner. (Courtesy Photo / Mark Olencki / Wofford College Athletics)
Lee Skinner. (Courtesy Photo / Mark Olencki / Wofford College Athletics)

Valparaiso’s Keith Carter: From Heartbreak to Happiness

Keith Carter. (Courtesy Photo / Valparaiso Athletics)
Keith Carter. (Courtesy Photo / Valparaiso Athletics)

Valparaiso junior guard Keith Carter was one of the happiest players on the floor when the Crusaders won the Horizon League championship. But before Carter could achieve happiness, he was forced to deal with heartbreak.

A standout at Proviso East High School in Illinois, Carter was runner-up for the state’s Mr. Basketball award in 2012 and earned a scholarship to Saint Louis to play for famed head coach Rick Majerus. But that same year Majerus was forced to take medical leave from the team, and died of heart failure on December 1, 2012.

The death of a coach is an indescribable pain for players to have to go through. Unable to play for the coach who recruited him, Carter transferred to Valparaiso prior to the start of the spring semester in 2013.

“He had a close relationship with Coach Majerus, and that was his reason why he was at Saint Louis,” Valpo head coach Bryce Drew says. “When he transferred to us he definitely was a lot more quiet, and it’s been really nice over the last year and a half to see him open up and really just be the great person that he is.”

A man of few words, it took time for Carter to adjust to his new surroundings during the 2013-14 season. This year, he is much more comfortable and has stepped up and became a true leader for the Crusaders.

“Just be the leader on the team, the second coach on the floor,” Carter says of his role this year. “I run the team and try to make sure everything goes well.”

“I’m sure when you talk to him, you wonder how is this guy a leader because he doesn’t really talk that much, but when he gets comfortable around you—like he’s comfortable around our team—he’s just tremendous,” Drew says. “When the guys hang out in the team room you always hear his voice going. On the court he does a great job talking to guys in between plays and getting guys on the same page. He has a really good basketball mind and it goes back to him having a good feel for the game, so I feel very comfortable with him talking to guys and talking in our huddles.”

Keith Carter. (Courtesy Photo / Valparaiso Athletics)
Keith Carter. (Courtesy Photo / Valparaiso Athletics)

Carter missed a little over a month of the season due to a dislocated toe but still managed to rank among the team’s leaders in multiple statistical categories. Carter was fourth on the team in scoring (8.5), led the team in assists (84), and was second in three-point percentage (38.3 percent) and steals (29).

“It’s been great. Last year I started off slow, but this year I feel like I’m on a roll,” Carter says. “I came together with my teammates and my coaching staff and just play my game and they allow me to run the team.”

“He has a great feel for the game. He can shoot the ball, he can score, he can pass, he can rebound,” Drew says. “He just takes what the game gives him; early in the season he was really scoring the ball well for us and lately he’s been penetrating and passing. He also has a great nose for the ball—he’s not necessarily a great jumper—but he does a great job finding where the ball is at and pursuing rebounds.”

Carter came up big off the bench in the conference championship, filling the stat-sheet with eight points, team-highs of seven rebounds and six assists, twos teals and a block. The Crusaders needed every bit of his performance to overcome a 10-point deficit in the first half and earn a 54-44 win over Green Bay.

“We went down early, so I just wanted to keep everybody level-headed and stay in the right direction,” he says.

Valparaiso received a 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will face No. 4 Maryland in the Midwest Region on Friday.

“I think we have a group of guys who are excited to be there and enjoying everything so far about the experience, but we have a very competitive group,” Drew says. “I know that they’re gonna want to compete at the highest level when they get there.”

For Carter, he will forever carry around the memory of Coach Majerus as he and his teammates pursue the happiness that comes from the Madness of March.

Keith Carter. (Courtesy Photo / Valparaiso Athletics)
Keith Carter. (Courtesy Photo / Valparaiso Athletics)

NCAA Tournament: Best upset picks

The NCAA Tournament is right around the corner, and a few of us over here at One-Bid Wonders figured we would share some of our insight on the most likely upsets to help you with your last-minute picks. Enjoy!

Most likely West Region upset

Ari Kramer: No. 11 Ole Miss/BYU over No. 6 Xavier

Xavier has been wildly inconsistent this year. How so? The Musketeers beat Georgetown but lost to Long Beach State on a neutral floor. They beat Providence, but they lost to Creighton at home. Though Ole Miss’ best win was Cincinnati or Oregon, the Rebels took Kentucky to overtime at Rupp. I’m more sold on BYU, which won at Gonzaga.

Martin Kessler: No. 11 Ole Miss/BYU over No. Xavier

Xavier has lost to some meh teams — Long Beach St., Auburn, DePaul. BYU, meanwhile, has been playing solid ball of late, winning eight of their last nine games (including a split with Gonzaga). I expect BYU to come away with a win over Ole Miss in the First Four matchup and then carry on with another W against the Musketeers.

Doric Sam: No. 10 Ohio State over No. 7 VCU

VCU’s HAVOC defense isn’t nearly as strong or scary as it used to be with opponents averaging 65.5 ppg. I think D’Angelo Russell has a huge game to lead the Buckeyes.

Sam Perkins: No. 10 Ohio State over No. 7 VCU

Is this really an upset? I know VCU has Shaka Smart and a history as a tournament darling, but on paper, Ohio State is every bit as good, statistically. VCU has shown the ability to lose to some mediocre teams this year (Richmond twice, St. Bonaventure’s), and D’Angelo Russell can absolutely light it up. VCU is also without key defender Briante Weber, and has been a streaky shooting team for much of the year.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: No. 13 Harvard over No. 4 UNC

That players-only meeting after the Crimson’s loss to Dartmouth has been the difference-maker for Harvard’s season. After that 70-61 loss, the Crimson has won 11 of their last 13 games. The Ivy-League team has proven they can upset teams in the past and this year may be no different.

Most likely Midwest Region upset

Ari Kramer: No. 12 Buffalo over No. 5 West Virginia

I like the Texas/Butler upset pick, but so does Vegas — the Longhorns are actually favored, despite having the worse seed. I’ll take Buffalo because the Bulls take care of the ball, are solid on the glass and get to the foul line, where they hit 72.2 percent of their attempts. That’s almost exactly how you counter West Virginia’s strengths.

Martin Kessler: No. 11 Texas over No. 6 Butler

Texas can really buckle down on defense, and I worry Butler won’t be able to get much going. This is sad because a we-used-to-be-cinderellas matchup between Butler and Wichita State in the Sweet Sixteen would be fun.

Doric Sam: No. 12 Buffalo over No. 5 West Virginia

Simply superstition: I needed another 5-12 upset. Power forward Justin Moss averages 17 and 9 and will dominate inside if the Bulls can break the Mountaineers’ press defense.

Sam Perkins: No. 13 Valparaiso over No. 4 Maryland

Valparaiso likes to slow the pace down, and plays a style that could allow them to hang around all night. With the 6-foot-10 Vashil Fernandez (and his 7-foot-5 wingspan) and the 6-foot-9 Alec Peters, the Crusaders are not only not going to get bullied in the post, but could actually start throwing their weight around against the Terps’ less-than-intimidating frontcourt. I could see Valpo making this game ugly, with Fernandez taking over on defense, for an ugly, trench-warfare-style upset.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: No. 9 Purdue over No. 8 Cincinnati

They’re only one seed apart, but it still qualifies as an upset. Cincinnati has proven they can lose to anybody with East Carolina, Temple and Tulane claiming wins over the Bearcats.

Most likely East Region upset

Ari Kramer: No. 13 UC Irvine over No. 4 Louisville

Louisville is a team built to lose against a 2-3 zone. Force the Cardinals to shoot, and they become vulnerable. UC Irvine plays zone and has a 7-foot-6 giant named Mamadou Ndiaye manning the middle of it, so I’ll take the Anteaters.

Martin Kessler: No. 11 Dayton over No. 6 Providence

The Flyers get to play their First Four matchup at home. They should get the win against Boise St. Then it’s up to coach Archie Miller to come up with a scheme to stop Providence’s high-scoring duo of LaDontae Henton and Kris Dunn. I think he’s up to the task.

Doric Sam: No. 9 LSU over No. 8 NC State

Jarrell Martin’s between-the-legs dunk in the middle of a game is one of the best things I’ve seen this year. To have the audacity to pull that off shows the Tigers play with a chip on their shoulder and won’t go down in the first round without a fight.

Sam Perkins: No. 12 Wyoming over No. 5 Northern Iowa

My heart wants me to go with No. 14 Albany and the amazing story of Peter Hooley’s perseverance after the death of his mother over No. 3 Oklahoma, and honestly, Hooley is the kind of emotional, inspiring player who could put his team on his back for a game. But I think Wyoming has the talent and potential — two big buzz words and huge “ifs” — and above all athleticism that they could put it together to shock the Panthers. Northern Iowa likes to play a slow it down style, but while Wyoming grinds it out on D, the Cowboys can really push the ball on offense. Star forward Larry Nance Jr. is well known nationally, and regarded as perhaps the best dunker in college ball, but he might not even be the best athlete on his own team. Wyoming point guard Josh Adams — whose tatted up arms and swag are reminiscent of Jason “White Chocolate” Williams, but whose crazy speed, insane athleticism and ability to stop and go on a dime are more similar to Allen Iverson — is the key for the Cowboys.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: No. 10 Georgia over No. 7 Michigan State

The Bulldogs will represent the SEC and take down Tom Izzo’s Spartans. Big man Marcus Thornton should expect to see big minutes in the Round of 64.

Most likely South Region upset

Ari Kramer: No. 13 Eastern Washington over No. 4 Georgetown

There are a few solid upset picks in this region, but I’ve dug Eastern Washington since the preseason so I’ll go with the Eagles here. Tyler Harvey is the nation’s leading scorer. Venky Jois is one of the best bigs you don’t know. Eastern Washington is a bit smaller than Georgetown, but the Eagles can make up for the deficiency with a hot night from deep, where they shoot 39.6 percent.

Martin Kessler: No. 13 Eastern Washington over No. 4 Georgetown

Eastern Washington — winners of five straight — love to let it fly from beyond the arc. The Eagles have hit 39.6 percent of their three-point attempts (14th in the country) and take 43.2 percent of their shots from deep (18th in the country). Georgetown, meanwhile, doesn’t play great perimeter defense. I could see Eastern Washington getting hot and knocking off the Hoyas.

Doric Sam: No. 12 Stephen F. Austin over No. 5 Utah

SFA has been in this situation before, knocking off VCU as a 12-seed last year. Utah plays good defense (56.9 opp. ppg.), but the Lumberjacks’ high-powered offense (79.5 ppg.) will prevail.

Sam Perkins: No. 12 Stephen F. Austin over No. 5 Utah

Stephen F. Austin can score with anyone in the country, mainly because almost everyone on their roster can put the ball in the hoop AND find the open man (they led the nation in assists). Despite the presence of 7-footer Jakob Poeltl, I don’t think Utah has the roster to “big” Stephen F. Austin too much around the hoop, nor the athleticism to run them out of the gym. This is a game I could see the Lumberjacks hanging around, and hanging around, and hanging around, before making some veteran plays down the stretch. Thomas Walkup and Jacob Parker, Stephen F. Austin’s best players and a pair of 6-foot-4/6-foot-6 men without positions are going to be tough matchups for the Utes.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: No. 10 Davidson over No. 7 Iowa

With one of the best offenses in the nation, the Wildcats could very well shoot themselves past Iowa into the Sweet 16. They proved that earlier in the year against Dayton – and pretty much in every other game they played.

Upset you’d expect to see in the Round of 32

Ari Kramer: No. 11 Texas over No. 3 Notre Dame

I’ll preface by saying I think Jerian Grant is one of the best players in America and I love watching Notre Dame. That said, Texas’ defense has flustered some elite offenses, like Kentucky’s and Baylor’s. If the Longhorns can lock down the perimeter, they’ll dance into the Sweet 16.

Martin Kessler: No. 7 Michigan State over No. 2 Virginia

This is not a knock on Virginia — the Cavaliers play impressie defense. But Michigan State is a really tough matchup for anyone. Of course Tom Izzo is going to have his guys ready, plus the Spartans have some talented scorers in Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine.

Doric Sam: No. 12 Stephen F. Austin over No. 4 Georgetown and No. 7 Wichita State over No. 2 Kansas

As I stated above, I don’t believe in the Hoyas in March (plus, I’m a Syracuse fan). Also, I think the Jayhawks fold under the pressure of trying to avoid being upset by the Shockers.

Sam Perkins: No. 5 Utah or No. 12 Stephen F. Austin over No. 4 Georetown

Maybe it’s the fact that Kevin Broadus found his way back to the Hoyas staff after imploding Binghamton’s men’s basketball team; maybe it’s the fact that Georgetown completely crumbled under pressure against Florida Gulf Coast’s Dunk City two years ago, or the fact that the Hoyas have lost to a double-digit seed in each of their last four NCAA Tournament appearances – more likely, it’s all of the above – but no matter how you slice it, I just don’t believe in G-town.

NCAA Tournament: Sweet 16 picks

The NCAA Tournament is right around the corner, and a few of us over here at One-Bid Wonders figured we would share some of our insight on the Sweet 16 to help you with your last-minute picks. Enjoy!

Top-two seed most likely to miss out

Ari Kramer: No. 2 Virginia Cavaliers, East Region

Michigan State was a popular pick to beat Virginia in last year’s Sweet 16, and look what happened. That’s not to say Tom Izzo and the Spartans own Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers. It does show, however, that Izzo has found a way to beat Virginia’s pack-line defense. Even though the Spartans have fewer threats than last year, they’ve had quality players — like Bryn Forbes — step in and they’ve looked pretty good lately.

Martin Kessler: No. 2 Gonzaga Bulldogs, South Region

Gonzaga is 32-2, but the Bulldogs have a tendency to choke — they’ve failed to reach the Sweet 16 each of the last five seasons. Does this year’s team have what it takes to make it to the second weekend? Maybe but Gonzaga could have a tough time with either Iowa or Davidson in the third round.

Doric Sam: No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks, Midwest Region

Facing Wichita State in the Round of 32 will not be an easy task, and the Jayhawks know it. The Shockers play sound defense and have the benefit of not having to deal with the media blitz they dealt with last year. Remember when everyone was picking them to upset Kentucky in the second round? Wichita State doesn’t have nearly as much pressure this year, whereas the Jayhawks will definitely feel pressure weighing on them as they try to avoid an upset.

Sam Perkins: No. 2 Gonzaga Bulldogs, South Region

Call it a troubling trend, call it history, call it bad luck. As much as it pains me to say this — more than anything because I remember watching Gonzaga’s run before the term “Mid-Major” even existed and because I am a massive fan of Lithuanian basketball (see: anyone with the last name “Sabonis”) — the Bulldogs just can’t seem to follow through on their talent and potential in the postseason. These guys are good, but I just get that feeling in my gut they won’t make the Sweet 16. The Bulldogs have a tendency to choke — they’ve failed to reach the Sweet 16 each of the last five seasons. Does this year’s team have what it takes to make it to the second weekend? Maybe, but Gonzaga could have a tough time with either Iowa or Davidson in the third round.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks, Midwest Region

Even at the Jayhawks best moments, their defense looked suspect. In January, they gave up 78 points in a win over Oklahoma. A couple weeks later Kansas gave up 76 points in a win over Iowa State – the Jayhawks one win out of three meetings with the Cyclones. In fact, their most recent game was a 70-66 loss to 3-seed Iowa State. When a team’s defense is so inconsistent, it could mean upset alert.

Double-digit seed most likely to crash the party

Ari Kramer: No. 11 Texas Longhorns, Midwest Region

Believe it or not, Texas is the rare underdog that’s actually favored in the first round. Vegas is giving Butler a point or point-and-a-half, depending where you look, and the Longhorns have the size and raw talent to beat a lot of teams, including No. 3 Notre Dame. The question is: can they play smart? I think they can play just smart enough to crack the Sweet 16.

Martin Kessler: No. 10 Davidson Wildcats, South Region

No, Steph Curry does not have any eligibility left, but I still like the team’s chances to make a run to the Sweet Sixteen. Why? The Wildcats have shown they can hang with good teams — see wins over VCU and Dayton — and they let it fly from deep. Davidon attempts more threes than almost anyone in the country (45.7 of the team’s field goal attempts are threes) and they connect on 39.3 percent of their shots. That high-variability on offense could pay off. The Wildcats will have to get by Iowa in their first game and will then likely face No. 2 Gonzaga in the third round. The Zags have a history of coming up short in the tournament.

Doric Sam: No. 12 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, South Region

The Lumberjacks are one of my 5-12 upsets, and that would set up a matchup with Georgetown in the second round. I just don’t believe in the Hoyas in March. I predict Georgetown will go cold from the field, and the Lumberjacks’ fire power will be way too much for the Hoyas to handle.

Sam Perkins: No. 12 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, South Region

There are bigger, faster, more athletic, and much more “traditional” double-digit seeds than the Lumberjacks, but that’s what makes them so interesting to me. A team of misfit toys, neither of the Lumberjacks two best players — Thomas Walkup and Jacob Parker — have a true position. But this team finds ways to get the job done, is very efficient on offense, plays incredibly hard and has all the characteristics to fluster and frustrate bigger teams from higher-level conferences by playing such a different style while presenting matchup problems across the board.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: No. 15 New Mexico State Aggies, Midwest Region

Trust that the Aggies believe in the upset detailed above. Red-hot NMSU’s last loss came on Jan. 17 to Seattle but they haven’t looked back since. Don’t get me wrong, the winners of 13-straight are clear underdogs against Kansas. But don’t be surprised if freshman Pascal Siakam is dancing while Wayne Selden Jr. is watching come the Sweet 16.

Matchup you would love to see

Ari Kramer: No. 2 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. No. 3 Iowa State Cyclones, South Region

This game would be too much fun, so leave it to No. 6 Southern Methodist or No. 11 UCLA to spoil the party by ousting the Cyclones in the Round of 32. If the basketball gods are kind enough to treat us to this matchup, we’ll see two different but great point guards (Kevin Pangos vs. Monte Morris) and two versatile forwards (Kyle Wiltjer vs. Georges Niang) go at it. This game could very well end in the high 80s.

Martin Kessler: No. 6 Providence Friars vs. No. 7 Michigan State, East Region

Don’t get your hopes up, but how fun would this matchup be? On one side, you’ve got Providence, a team that nearly toppled Villanova with two guys — LaDontae Henton and Kris Dunn — who could go off in any game. On the other side you’ve got Michigan State, a team that brings it every March. The Spartans also have star power in Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson.

Doric Sam: No. 1 Villanova Wildcats vs. No. 4 Louisville Cardinals, East Region

When I first started following college basketball, I became a fan of Syracuse and the Big East. I long for the days of the Big East Tournament, and seeing the Wildcats against the Cardinals in a high-stakes game would be the closest thing to those high-intensity games at Madison Square Garden. Even though as a fan I hate both these teams, the media pundit side of me would love to see Villanova’s high-powered offense against Louisville’s pressure defense.

Sam Perkins: No. 2 Arizona Wildcats vs. No. 3 Baylor Bears

How fun would it be to see Baylor center/Nose Tackle Rico Gathers — “undersized” at 6’8” and 300 pounds — go head-to-head with the Wildcats towering, physical front court? I’ve always been a huge fan of brawls on the low-blocks, and with true low-post players who embrace the physicality of the game on the verge of extinction, this could be a throwback to the kind of battles I watched as a kid in the 90s.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners vs. No. 6 Providence Friars

After a 30-point blowout win over Albany, Oklahoma will lose to Providence and that is purely why I would love to see this game. The Friars have beaten two out of the three teams ranking higher than them in the Big East. They were close to beating Villanova at the end of the season in a 63-61 loss. With the best passer in the nation in Kris Dunn and a prolific scorer in LaDontae Henton, Providence is dangerous.

Warren Gillis: Coastal Carolina’s Swiss Army Knife

Warren Gillis. (Courtesy Photo / Coastal Carolina Athletics)
Warren Gillis. (Courtesy Photo / Coastal Carolina Athletics)

When Warren Gillis graduated from high school, he couldn’t help but wonder, “What if?” After splitting his time between basketball and football during his four-year career at Academy of the New Church in Philadelphia, Gillis just wanted to see what would happen if he committed all his focus on one sport.

Feeling unfulfilled in knowing he never gave his full attention to basketball, his pride led him to choose to continue competing on the hardwood and he spent a prep year at Rise Academy. Now a senior playing for Coastal Carolina, which is making its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, it’s clear Gillis made the right choice.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do or if I even wanted to play in college,” Gillis recalls of his feelings after he graduated. “I felt like I didn’t give the game all that I had throughout my years in high school, so I really wanted to give it another shot and see if I could actually play in college. It ended up working out for me.

“It definitely was more of a pride thing because everybody growing up wants to play Division-I whether it’s basketball or football or whatever,” he continues. “So once I saw I wouldn’t be able to play Division-I, I felt like if I could give it one more shot I can be satisfied with not making it as long as I gave it my all, you know?”

Gillis admits while growing up in Philly he never imagined he would be playing for a team with aqua green-colored jerseys and a fighting chicken as its mascot, but says he knew the Chanticleers were the right fit for him as soon as he visited the campus.

“The coaching staff was very experienced,” Gillis says. “It’s a great atmosphere and area around here, a little more laid back than Philadelphia so that was a nice little change. And then the makeup of the team was good for me and I was able to fit in right away, so that was a bonus as well.”

Gillis became a regular starter for Coastal Carolina in his sophomore year. At 6’3”, 205 pounds, he wears many hats for the Chanticleers as a Swiss-army knife-type player with no real position.

“Officially, we call me a three (small forward), but I don’t really have the three-man responsibilities that Coach (Cliff) Ellis used to have, so I would call myself a guard right now,” he laughs. “My teammates joke about it all the time, sometimes they even call me the five-man (center). Sometimes I even play the four (power forward), so I’m just all over the place.

“I think that’s one of the things that keeps me on the court. Coach Ellis can sort of just put anybody out there and I can just play any role and we can work that way. I’m trying to become a more balanced overall player.”

Warren Gillis. (Courtesy Photo / Coastal Carolina Athletics)
Warren Gillis. (Courtesy Photo / Coastal Carolina Athletics)

Gillis led Coastal Carolina (24-9) in scoring (13.1), steals (47), tied for the team-lead in assists (107) and was second in minutes-played (31.2) on his way to earning his second straight selection to the All-Big South second team. He shined brightest in the conference championship game, scoring 22 points and dishing out six assists in an 81-70 win over Winthrop.

“You just want to play your game and play with full energy and focus. You don’t want to hold anything back or have any regrets, so I just tried to come out and be aggressive,” says Gillis, who was named Big South Tournament MVP for the second year in a row. “I didn’t want to have any regrets for passing up shots or trying too hard or anything like that. I just wanted to keep the same focus.”

It’s hard enough to make the NCAA Tournament once, but to do it in back-to-back seasons is even harder. Gillis said the pressure of defending their title affected the Chanticleers early in the season, but once the conference tournament came around he and his teammates were ready for the moment.

“It was a difficult season, because you’re trying to live up to expectations and sometimes when you do that you don’t really play the way you should be playing. I had some games where I didn’t play really well, but once we got down to the conference tournament we had the best focus we had all year,” Gillis says. “We were able to play great defense throughout the whole tournament to win it. We really appreciate it because in the Big South conference you have to win the tournament to get in, so you don’t have great chances to make the NCAA Tournament. It’s always a great feeling to make it.”

Coastal Carolina will be a No. 16 seed in the West Region and face No. 1 Wisconsin on Friday. As one of two seniors on the team, Gillis is making sure his younger teammates know what the goal is, and it’s a simple one.

“We’re coming in to win, we’re preparing to come in and win,” he says. “We’re not just happy to be here; it’s great to be here but we still play to win, and that’s what we want to do.”

Warren Gillis. (Courtesy Photo / Coastal Carolina Athletics)
Warren Gillis. (Courtesy Photo / Coastal Carolina Athletics)

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.

North Florida’s Beau Beech: A dream come true

Beau Beech. (Courtesy Photo / ASunPhotos.com / North Florida Athletic Communications)
Beau Beech. (Courtesy Photo / ASunPhotos.com / North Florida Athletic Communications)

Beau Beech grew up just 30 minutes away from the North Florida campus in Ponte Vedra Beach and spent his childhood attending Ospreys’ rivalry games against Jacksonville University. Now a junior forward for a North Florida team heading to its first NCAA Tournament in program history, Beech couldn’t be more proud to be leading his hometown school into the throes of March Madness.

But for Beech, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament means more than just a goal achieved. It represents a promise fulfilled.

“It’s just a dream come true. My dad and I specifically had been talking about that day, March 8 at 4:30 when the final buzzer went off against USC Upstate to win the A-Sun championship; we had been talking about that day since I committed, and how great it would be to do that for UNF,” Beech says. “I had promised Coach (Matthew) Driscoll, actually, when I committed I said, ‘Coach, I’m going to do two things for you: one, we’re gonna win the Atlantic Sun Tournament and go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time,’ so that’s a check. And the second one, I said, ‘We’re gonna get to the Sweet 16 as well.’ (laughs) So I got to stick to my promises to my coach, I’m halfway there.”

Beech has never been one to shy away from setting lofty goals. As a child he watched as his father, Bud, was a highly successful coach for Nease High School. Beau attended his dad’s practices since he was in elementary school. When Bud moved on after 24 years at Nease to become the dean of students and basketball coach at Ponte Vedra High School, Beau ended up playing for his father, something he had set out to do since he was a child.

“I always put the most pressure on myself, he never put pressure on me, so I had the pressure in my own head to perform for my dad because I always promised him I was gonna win a state championship for him just like Chet Stachitas did, who played at St. Joseph’s with Jameer Nelson and Delonte West when they were making their runs in the NCAA Tournament,” Beech says. “He had played for my dad at Nease and won a state championship, and I can remember seeing Chet at practice working before or afterwards with my dad. When they won a state championship, I think I probably told my dad the next day or something, that I’m going to do that, win him a state championship when I get to high school (laughs). That was the most pressure I’ve ever felt from my dad, and it wasn’t even from him it was from something I said I’d do for him.”

While Beech didn’t get to win that state championship, he did lead Ponte Vedra to its first District 4-5A title as a senior in 2012, scoring 34 points against Nease in the championship game.

For some players, playing for their hometown school can be daunting because the whole community knows who you are. The thought of failing in front of the people who watched you grow up can add an incredible amount of pressure, but for someone like Beech, that thought never crossed his mind.

“I think it’s very difficult for a young man to choose to play in his hometown just in case he’s not good enough or just in case it doesn’t go as well as he wants it to go, unless he has that much confidence and is that intrinsically-motivated that fear doesn’t enter your vocabulary,” North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll says. “Because of that, he was able to say, ‘This is where I want to go, this is what I want to do, and I’m from right down the road.’ He told me when we recruited him he said, ‘Coach, we’re going to the NCAA Tournament and gonna play in the Sweet 16,’ and believe me I’ve told him that several times too. I say, ‘Man, don’t forget what you said now!’”

Beau Beech. (Courtesy Photo / ASunPhotos.com / North Florida Athletic Communications)
Beau Beech. (Courtesy Photo / ASunPhotos.com / North Florida Athletic Communications)

Out of the 14 players on the Ospreys’ roster, nine of them are Florida-natives. Instead of feeling pressure playing for his hometown, Beech uses it as a comfort zone. The North Florida community is all he knows, and all he loves.

“The reason why he came here, in my opinion, is he is as good of a family dude that you’ll ever want to meet in your life,” Driscoll says. “He loves his two sisters, he loves his little brother, he loves his mom and dad, he loves going home to have dinner, he loves kicking it with his dad in the gym and working out, he loves going to shop with his sister at the town center. He loves family, like he truly is a family dude, and it really shows through if you’re around him.”

Beech was an All-Atlantic Sun first-team selection, one of just two unanimous choices this year and the first unanimous all-conference selection in program history. He averaged 15.9 points and 6.4 rebounds during league play while shooting 39.2 percent from three-point range. A 6’8”, 210-pound point-forward, Beech helps the Ospreys in many different areas on the court, but Driscoll says his biggest contributions to the team don’t show up in the stat-sheet.

“Probably his greatest impact on the team is, he definitely understands what he wants to do in life and in basketball and he definitely shows every single day, that this guy is one of those dudes who really, really wants to be as great as he can be with the gift he’s been given by God,” says Driscoll, who was named Atlantic Sun coach of the year. “So he really sets an example for what it takes to get to that level. And he really is a great leader, he has that ability during the game on the floor and in timeouts, and in the locker room of course, of really doing a great job of helping lead the guys.”

North Florida (23-11) will face Robert Morris (19-14) in a First Four game on Wednesday with the winner of that game will advance as a No. 16 seed in the South Regional and face top-seeded Duke on Friday.

“Our motto the whole year has been ‘1 and 0,’ to 1 and 0 on that night. Whatever day we play, whoever we play against, wherever we play at, we just want to go 1-0,” Beech says. “It sounds cliché, but the whole school has really bought into it, there are shirts that say 1-0, there were signs at the championship game that said 1-0. It’s really caught on here and it’s really helped us the whole season.”

Driven by the pride of helping lead his hometown school to the promised land of the NCAA Tournament, Beech will savor every moment with his teammates knowing that he is performing for the entire North Florida community.

“I never thought I’d end up here, or even on a college basketball team, honestly. Once I had the opportunity to have schools ask for me to play for them I just thought, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable,’ and then UNF came into the picture and it was so weird to think that a school that I watched just for fun would consider me,” Beech says. “Once I committed, I told my dad what a small world it is, that we were here just five or six years ago talking about how cool it would be to play in that kind of environment, and little did we know I was gonna be in that environment six years later, winning the A-Sun championship.”

Beau Beech. (Courtesy Photo / North Florida Athletic Communications)
Beau Beech. (Courtesy Photo / North Florida Athletic Communications)

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.