Wiedmer: NCAA locks not all major

Wiedmer: NCAA locks not all major

February 17th, 2009 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports

Out on the court, the visiting College of Charleston Cougars were about to stun Davidson. Along press row, ESPN's Dick Vitale was about to utter words to all but eliminate the shock and bitterness of that unexpected defeat.

Asked how much the Wildcats needed to win the Southern Conference tournament in Chattanooga to ensure a spot in the NCAA tournament, Vitale replied, "You mean, do they get a bid (without winning the SoCon tourney)? Absolutely. No question at all. And you don't want to see Davidson come tournament time."

This is the dream of every true mid-major, which Davidson clearly is as a member of the SoCon, which never has sent two league members to the Big Dance in the same season. As with many non-major conferences, you win the conference tourney or you hope the NIT calls.

But the Wildcats aren't the only mid-major the power conferences may want to avoid come March. Butler and Utah State should also find themselves in the 65-team NCAA field regardless of whether or not they win their league tournaments.

All three have been ranked in the Top 25 this season, though only Butler currently resides there at No. 21. And none of the three truly fit the Cinderella mold. Davidson reached the Elite Eight last season. Butler fell in overtime to Tennessee in the second round last spring and reached the Sweet 16 in 2007. And Utah State should make its sixth appearance this decade, regardless of how it finishes in the Western Athletic Conference.

"I like this team a lot," Utah State coach Stew Morrill told the Salt Lake Tribune last week, just before Boise State shocked the visiting Aggies on Saturday, snapping their 19-game win streak.

"They're really good kids. They come to practice every day; they understand game prep; they're a bright team. There's a lot of things they do pretty dang well."

One of those things is their schoolwork. Sophomore forward Tai Wesley told ESPN.com earlier this season, "We have really, really smart guys. There isn't anyone on our team who's under a 3.0 (GPA)."

Such intelligence helps Morrill run a complex offense that creates so many open looks that Utah State is hitting 50 percent of its field-goal atttempts. The Aggies were only the fourth team in NCAA history last winter to lead the nation in both field-goal percentage (.514) and free-throw percentage (.792), so these guys aren't exactly one-year wonders when it comes to putting the ball in the basket.

Beyond that, Morrill's 24-2 team has now won at least 23 games for a 10th straight season. Only Kansas and Gonzaga have matched that excellence the past nine years.

None of that can top Butler's run of excellence the past 12 years, however. The Bulldogs should make their eighth NCAA tournament appearance in that span, and they've won six of 13 games they've played in the past seven tournaments, despite adjusting to four head coaches.

"I used to coach against them in the Horizon League," Tennessee's Bruce Pearl said before last season's tourney scare. "And there may be nobody anywhere who executes a game plan better."

The amazing thing about this Butler team is that second-year coach Brad Stevens is starting three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior on a team that stands 22-3 after Sunday's stunning loss to Chicago-Loyola.

"Every game we play, because we have a (ranking) number next to our name is a huge game," Stevens said late Sunday. "But we've handled it really well so far."

Perhaps the biggest of those games for the Bulldogs will come at high noon Saturday at Davidson in ESPN's annual Bracket Buster weekend.

The Wildcats currently stand 15-1 in the SoCon and 22-4 overall. They're also all sweating the status of All-America guard Stephen Curry's left ankle, which he rolled during last Saturday's win over Furman.

"I'm walking, so that's the good news," Curry said Monday. "I've gotten a lot of advice from a lot of people who are really worried about my ankle, from putting a paper bag with vinegar on it to using no ice at all. From crashing on the court to being on my two feet now in 24 hours, it's pretty good."

No one knows if any of these teams can be much more than pretty good come March until March arrives.

Even Utah State's Morrill admits, "We're not a dominant team. We have to do things right. We have to have a lot of guys step up. And we've won a lot of close games."

But Vitale will also tell you, "Guard play becomes crucial in March, and when you look around the country not many people have had better guard play this year than Butler, Davidson and Utah State."

If that continues, all three could do pretty dang well when all the games become huge.