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Upsets Mark Second Round of NCAA Tournament

March 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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BASKETBALL ANNOUNCER: Three seconds to go! Oh, my goodness!

JEFFREY BROWN: Sometimes the unknown takes the court and makes itself suddenly known to all.

BASKETBALL ANNOUNCER: Northwestern wins!

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s what can make college basketball’s March championship tournament, featuring 64 teams, so exciting and so fun, and it’s happened again. This weekend, several underdogs surprised higher ranked, heavily favored opponents. On Saturday, Wichita State knocked off Tennessee, a number-two seed.

MARK TURGEON, Head Coach, Wichita State University: You know, it as just — my emotions, I’m just so proud and so happy, I can’t even tell you, to do what this team has done this year. I keep saying I didn’t think we were any good when practice started, and to be now part of a Sweet 16, and we just keep getting a little bit better.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yesterday, the 13th-seed Bradley Braves from Peoria, Illinois, beat fifth-seed Pittsburgh. Both Bradley and Wichita State play in the unheralded Missouri Valley Conference during the regular season.

Yesterday also saw the biggest surprise, as George Mason University, a Fairfax, Virginia, school, defeated the defending national champion and perennial basketball power North Carolina. On George Mason’s campus today, students dressed the statue of the school’s namesake and were thrilled with the unexpected attention.

MARK LOUIE, Sophomore, George Mason University: That’s put George Mason on the national map. No words can express how I feel.

OBED TAWIAH-ARNEAH, Sophomore, George Mason University: It doesn’t matter if we’re accredited. It doesn’t matter how many PhDs we put out. As long as we’ve got a good team, we’re money.

JEFFREY BROWN: Coach Jim Larranaga said his team had been underestimated.

JIM LARRANAGA, Head Coach, George Mason University: We don’t want to judge ourselves based on other’s expectations; it’s going to be based on what we want to do. And we wanted to play well and show the country that we deserved to be in the tournament, show the country that we can compete at a very high level.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, even as George Mason and the other Cinderellas now advance to the so-called Sweet 16 round, they’ll find more of the game’s goliaths, Duke and Connecticut among them, waiting when the tournament continues on Thursday.

And our own hoops guy, sportswriter John Feinstein, attended and watched many games this past week. John’s new book about the NCAA tournament is called “Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four.”

John, welcome to you.

JOHN FEINSTEIN, Sportswriter-Author: Thanks, Jeff. How are you?

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m good. This time last week, the issue was whether some of these teams even deserved to be playing in the tournament. So things have certainly changed, haven’t they?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Yes, the committee has absolutely been vindicated this week. A week ago Sunday, when the brackets were unveiled on CBS, Billy Packer and Jim Nantz, the two lead CBS anchors, questioned Craig Littlepage, the chairman of the committee, very sharply about, why weren’t there more teams from the power conferences, the ACC, and the Big East, and the Big 10 among them?

And why were these teams that you mentioned in the piece from the Missouri Valley and George Mason from a smaller conference, the CAA, in the field? And I guess the answer is the way the Missouri Valley teams played, the way George Mason played.

George Mason over the weekend, Jeff, beat two of the teams that were in last year’s Final Four, Michigan State and North Carolina. And this is a school that had never won an NCAA tournament game before this weekend, so it’s a remarkable story and a fun story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The coach of George Mason who we just saw, Jim Larranaga, he said yesterday the college game has changed dramatically over the years. There’s a lot of parity in the country right now. Now, explain what that means.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, there are several reasons for this, Jeff. One of them is that so many of the star players at the power schools, the North Carolinas, the Dukes, the Connecticuts, and others, leave now after a year or don’t go to college at all and go straight to the NBA, so a lot of these power schools are built around younger players, freshmen and sophomores.

North Carolina being an example this year, because they had four players who still had eligibility left after they won the national championship last year who went to the NBA.

JEFFREY BROWN: So they were, in essence, a completely new team from last year?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Exactly right. Their top 10 scorers, four of whom were underclassmen, left the program. George mason is built around three seniors, guys who have been in their program for four and, in the case of their leading scorer, Lamar Butler, five years.

So they’re older. They’re more experienced, and the players from the smaller schools in many cases weren’t recruited by the power schools. So when they get a chance to play against them, especially on the national stage, they come in with a little chip on their shoulder, and it helps them when you get into those tough moments at the end of the close games.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, but this leads me to a question I always wonder about: Do the smaller programs have more talent or do the bigger, more established programs have less because, as you say, they’ve lost people? In other words, has the quality gone down or has the competition just come up?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: I think it’s a combination of the two. The power teams do not keep their star players anymore, but it is also the talent has spread out.

Years ago, great players would go to the big power programs and not even start. There was a guy named Swen Nater who was Bill Walton’s backup at UCLA for three years in the 1970s. Never started, he played in the NBA for 10 years. He was that good a player. That would never happen today.

Today’s kids want to go somewhere where they can start as freshmen. If you’re recruited by a school, a power school, and they say, “You need to come in and play behind our star guard for a year,” they’ll say, “No, I don’t want to go there; I’ll go to a smaller school where I can start right away.”

Everybody wants to play, and that’s spread out the talent more evenly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, how important is something like this to a school like George Mason, Wichita State, in terms of prestige, in terms of money, in terms of just gaining some national attention?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: It’s almost incalculable, because if you go back and study schools at all levels that have success in this tournament through the years, whether it’s a power school like Duke or the schools you’re talking about, like George Mason and Wichita State, admissions goes up, endowment goes up, contributions from alumni go up, bookstore sales rocket.

Teams that win a national championship, they make into the millions in licensing for caps, and t-shirts, and sweatshirts, and things like that. And the national profile of the school goes up. It helps you in terms of recruiting professors, and it also helps the quality of student, because the more people you have applying, the more likely you are to have quality students in that application pool.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, not every — often people complain about the coach’s salaries, especially compared to professors, but I guess this is why.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, exactly, because they can make money for the schools. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s coach, is without question its biggest fundraiser, because not only the money that he brings in to the program through TV rights and tournament money, but all of these other factors we’re talking about that skyrocket because of the basketball team’s success all lead back to the Krzyzewski.

In the 20 years since Duke started going to Final Fours under Krzyzewski — they’ve been to 10 in the last 20 years — Duke’s admissions have tripled applications, and a lot of that comes directly back to the success of the basketball program.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you’re talking about Duke. In the end in these things, usually the Cinderella teams do not win.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: it usually comes back to the great powers. This time it could be Duke, Connecticut. You think that will happen this time?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: It will be almost certainly a power school cutting down the nets in Indianapolis on April 3rd. The last true Cinderella to make the Final Four was Pennsylvania in 1979.

The first week of the tournament is the week for the Cinderellas, the schools we’re talking about. Gonzaga in 1999 made it to the Elite Eight, and we have these teams that do make the Sweet 16. But usually when you get to that last weekend, last year, in the end, it was North Carolina, Illinois, Michigan State, Louisville, all power schools.

Unfortunately, it will probably be power schools in Indianapolis this year; I’d love to see a Cinderella get there.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, John, we only have about 30 seconds, but the subtitle of your new book, “Behind the Scenes at the Final Four,” for those of us who watch that far, what’s the key behind the scenes?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, there’s a whole Final Four that goes on away from the TV cameras. There’s a coaches’ convention. What it means to get there as a referee, things like that.

The scene that sums it up for me was I was in the coaches’ hotel years ago. John Wooden was there with his wife, Nell. It was very late at night. She was dying. She was in a wheelchair.

Coach Wooden got up to start to wheel her across the lobby to go upstairs to bed, and somebody started to clap, and then someone else, and someone else. And the next thing you knew, the whole lobby spontaneously was clapping for Coach and Mrs. Wooden.

It was a very touching scene, and it was something I wanted to have the chance to write about some day, and I got to do it in this book.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, John Feinstein, thanks again.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Jeff.