Early today, the University of Connecticut left Storrs on their way to Houston to participate in the NCAA basketball's Final Four. Among the players will be former Tyner standout Michael Bradley, who although not receiving a minute of playing time due to a redshirt, will be a part of the experience of a lifetime.
The 6-foot-10 freshman center has been along for the ride as the 30-9 Huskies - who haven't lost to a team outside of the Big East this season - won the Big East tournament, the West Regional and have advanced to the fourth Final Four in coach Jim Calhoun's reign.
They will face the University of Kentucky (29-8) Saturday night at 8:47 EDT. UConn's finish has been strong for a team that before the season started, wasn't even listed as one of the top 68 teams in the nation and a preseason 10th in the Big East.
"It's crazy," Bradley said while ordering a vanilla Frosty from Wendy's Tuesday after UConn's practice. "We were looking at the lists and saw we weren't on it, and coach Calhoun told us we just had to work hard and see how far we could go.
"We weren't in the top 68, but now we're in the Final Four and the favorites to win it all. We've had to outwork and out-will our opponents; be the hardest-working team."
Bradley becomes only the third male player from a Chattanooga-area team to have a team play in the Final Four. In 1982, Jimmy Braddock, a Baylor School graduate, was a member of the University of North Carolina team that won the NCAA championship. Eight years later, former Brainerd standout Malcolm Mackey's Georgia Tech team was in the 1990 Final Four.
Former Bradley Central standout Brittany Jackson was the last player - male or female - to play in the Final Four, as she played in four consecutive Final Fours as a member of the Lady Vols from 2001-05.
The season has been particularly tough for Bradley, who has had to play the role of imitator this season as he's played the role of various Big East big men. This week, he will emulate Kentucky post Josh Harrelson and/or freshman phenom Terrance Jones.
Bradley admitted that he's been frustrated at times.
"I've just had to work as hard as I should ever day," he said. "I do get frustrated because I think, 'I'm not playing tomorrow anyway,' but I've just had to develop a harder work ethic.
"I know I've got to stick with it now, because the good is going to happen. I've had to be just about everybody this year, but next year I'm going to be Mike Bradley."
Bradley has connections with the other teams in the Final Four, as well. He's friends with Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight, while Virginia Commonwealth was in his final three schools to choose from. He made a visit to Butler as a junior in high school, noting that he thought they were some "run-down" program at the time.
"And now they've been to two straight Final Fours," he mused with a laugh.
He noted that he's not surprised VCU is in the Final Four - although he would have never predicted it.
"I really liked coach [Shaka] Smart," Bradley said. "He's not just a good coach; he's a good person. As a player, you want your coach to have your back, and you can tell he does. All of his players worked hard; I can see why they're in the Final Four.
"The players trust him and work hard. What they've done has paid off."
Tyner head coach Gerald Harris, who played in the NCAA tournament while at Middle Tennessee State University, noted that it's been gratifying watching a former player's team get to the point that few players can say they advanced to.
"I think that based on what Mike has been through has prepared him to face what he's going through there," Harris said. "I was blessed to have the opportunity to coach him, and fortunate enough to have a small piece in his success. I know he wishes he was playing, but I've told him that if he hangs in there, good things will happen.
"He's a redshirt and he's getting to travel, so for him to be on the bench and have the opportunity to see how Calhoun handles the game and bench management is priceless.
"He's getting to see how things will go next year when he's going to be called to contribute."