Why the Wisconsin Badgers can win the Final Four

March 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

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Wisconsin big man Frank Kaminsky was asked in a postgame interview if he was surprised by the Badgers’ 64-63 overtime win against top-seeded Arizona.

“No,” he said bluntly.

The rest of the country should stop acting so surprised, too. This Wisconsin squad is the truth.

Bo Ryan was perhaps the best coach in college basketball yet to reach a Final Four. Not anymore. Ryan’s teams have always been defensively-sound and that’s led to 14 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and top-4 Big Ten Conference finishes.

The difference this year? The offense is as potent as it’s ever been, for starters. But the reason Wisconsin is more than a Final Four surprise is multi-faceted.

Wisconsin’s chemistry is championship material. So much of basketball can be broken down into Xs and Os but when it comes down to it team synergy and camaraderie can be the difference-maker. This group has that in its finest form. It’s obvious they love playing together and there’s a trust factor.

Frank Kaminsky. The 7-footer is the ultimate X-Factor, evidenced by his 28-point, 11-rebound performance vs. ‘Zona. He stretches the floor and when his jumpers are falling, there’s plenty of space for guards Traevon Jackson, Ben Brust and Josh Gasser to operate.

Defense wins championships. Wisconsin’s a safe bet to win the national championship because the team’s offense doesn’t have to be firing on all cylinders to win. The Badgers weren’t at their best against the Wildcats on Saturday but still hung tough. The team’s man-to-man defense is based on toughness and grit, which carries over on the offensive end.

The perimeter attack. With the exception of Nigel Hayes, any Wisconsin player on the court will launch a three-pointer comfortably and accurately. That inside-out ability is tough for any defense to matchup with and it keeps opponents’ defenses honest while providing more opportunity to get to the paint in the process. Arizona is one of the best perimeter defensive teams in the country and Wisconsin still excelled in its execution.

This team is clutch. Wisconsin has composure and poise down the stretch. That was on full display Saturday as well as the entire Big Ten Conference season.  Let’s keep in mind this Wisconsin team has given Florida one of its two losses. And if Michigan State beats UConn on Sunday, it’ll have beaten two of its three Final Four opponents.

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Reality is, Billy Donovan has Florida in favorite role

March 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

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As the final seconds evaporated Saturday at FedEx Forum, a stoic Billy Donovan made a slow walk toward Dayton’s Archie Miller – a man at the very top of his profession extending his hand to one of the sport’s rising coaches.

Donovan, 48, was about Miller’s age when he first reached the Final Four with Florida in 2000. Since then, the perception of Donovan has changed dramatically as he has evolved and cemented his status as one of the nation’s most preeminent coaches.

The job he has done this season, overcoming early-season injuries and suspensions, winning 30 consecutive games and breaking through after three consecutive Elite Eight losses to earn his fourth Final Four berth as Gators coach, has simply been one of his finest.

“Pretty spectacular,” Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley told USA TODAY Sports as the Gators were celebrating their 62-52 victory over 11th-seeded Dayton. “He is as good as they get. This is a team. He works really hard on chemistry, that’s one of his biggest strengths.”

College basketball is in an age when some fans celebrate the signing of one-and-done recruits more than conference championships. But go ahead and scan Florida’s roster from top to bottom. You won’t find a player guaranteed to be taken in the first round of June’s NBA draft.

Jonathan Givony, the editor of DraftExpress.com, said Saturday that freshman Chris Walker would be picked somewhere in the draft, if he declared, and that senior Patric Young could be selected as well. But no Florida player ranks among the top 40 overall prospects by the Web site.

This team isn’t exactly a mirror image of Florida’s back-to-back national championship teams in 2006 and 2007, which saw three players picked among the top nine picks in the 2007 draft. This year’s success, with four senior starters, is a testament to Donovan’s acumen.

“We don’t have the best players in the country,” Florida assistant John Pelphrey said. “They play like they are the best players in the country. That’s because of Billy.”

The Gators (36-2) will play the winner of the Michigan State-UConn East Regional final in Saturday’s national semifinals in Arlington, Texas. Should the Gators play the Spartans, it will be a rematch of the 2000 national title game, when the perception of Donovan was far different than it is now.

He was viewed as a shrewd, aggressive recruiter who, some believed, operated in the recruiting world’s gray area. There’s the oft-told story of Donovan’s exhaustive recruitment of Mike Miller in the late 1990s. The NCAA’s in-home recruiting period did not begin until one Saturday.

Well, for Donovan, that meant 12:01 a.m. Saturday morning. And Pelphrey was at Miller’s door in Mitchell, S.D., just after midnight. Florida signed Mitchell, who helped Donovan reach the 2000 national title game.

“He did aggressively recruit,” Pelphrey said Friday.

It can be hard to change perceptions. Baylor’s Scott Drew, deemed by critics as an aggressive recruiter and an inferior bench coach, has battled that in recent years. He has hoped to follow the path of Donovan, referencing the Florida coach as someone who has seen his perception evolve over the years, as on-court success continued to separate Donovan from many of his peers.

“Fourteen years of success will do that to you,” Pelphrey said. “I don’t think in two years became this Hall of Fame coach. Obviously he must have been a good coach while he was being an aggressive recruiter. Perception is not reality.”

In recent years, Donovan has talked plenty about how the unique, arduous journey of each season is now what he cherishes most about his job. What will his players take from the experience of each season? How equipped are they to take the next step in life? How much can they come together during each season?

“We all want to win, and I hope we go all the way through, I’d love that,” Donovan said. “But that stuff, I probably have a lot more appreciation for now than maybe I did when I was younger.”

When asked what Donovan’s best quality is, the senior Young did not hesitate in the locker room after Saturday’s game: “Honesty. Integrity. He is the man that he appears to be on TV, that he appears to be in the light. He is the same man in the darkness as well. It’s great having a guy like that who is going to be very honorable.”

Donovan celebrated another Final Four appearance Saturday, with a keen eye on a potential third national championship. Coaches get labeled early in their careers, and those labels are often wrong. Just look at how the perception of Donovan has changed since his first Final Four berth.

“If you don’t deal in reality, reality will deal with you,” Pelphrey said. “Maybe we can say everyone else was not dealing with reality then. They are dealing with reality now.”

Joel Embiid, Tyler Ennis to declare for 2014 NBA Draft

March 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

A most delightful WOJBOMB for everyone this morning, when the almighty reported Kansas center Joel Embiid will enter the NBA Draft this year. Jojo’s been dealing with back issues that kept him out of the NCAA Tournament and directly led to KU’s early exit against a mediocre Stanford squad that had no business hanging with them. From a well-off family Cameroon, there was speculation that Embiid would prefer to stay in school at least another year because he didn’t think he was necessarily ready for the pros, but when the money comes calling, you pick up the phone.

Embiid is absolutely in that top 3 discussion, but I wonder how much his injury concerns will affect his draft stock. There was a time a few months ago when he surpassed Andrew Wiggins as consensus #1 pick (everywhere but my heart), but as Wiggins took off towards the end of the season and Joel struggled to stay healthy, that seems to have mostly fallen off. Nerlens Noel was, at one time, the consensus #1 pick as well — injuries to big men are not taken lightly in any front office.

The talent is obviously there (rim protectors, premium, etc.) for him to be a stud on both ends of the court, but I would not be surprised in the least to see him fall out of the top 3 or even further. Nobody wants to come away from this draft — THIS DRAFT! — with a bust. Injuries or otherwise. Expectations are massive. We’ll see. Not sure which teams would take Embiid over Wiggins, but should Philly not win the Lottery, I will be emailing Hakeem Olajuwon clips to the winning GM for a month straight.

And this doesn’t pertain to the Sixers so much since the odds of them taking Syracuse point guards who can’t shoot in back to back drafts are… slim… but Tyler Ennis will also go pro. He’s got a ton of holes in his game, but man if he isn’t extremely impressive on the court. I don’t know that he’s a first division starter, but he looks like he’ll be a lottery pick and I’m hoping he has a good career ahead of him. Screw off, Boeheim.

Both guys aren’t necessarily Sixers targets (the Embiid-Noel thing is a conversation for another day, MCW-Ennis), but their choices to declare for the draft mean the players we do want the Sixers to grab could slip a spot because of their inclusion. So thank you, Joel and Tyler. Jabari, you’re up.

Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis to enter NBA draft

March 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

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Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis will forgo his final three years of eligibility and declare for the NBA draft.

The school announced the news Thursday. His mother wrote in a text message to USA TODAY Sports that Ennis made the decision after discussing it with his family.

“I’d like to thank Coach (Jim) Boeheim, the coaching staff, my teammates and the amazing fans of Syracuse for the opportunity to play at a great university like Syracuse,” Ennis said in a statement. “I feel this experience has helped prepare me to fulfill my lifelong dream – to play in the NBA.”

Ennis averaged 12.9 points, 5.5 assists and 3.4 rebounds for the Orange this season. Syracuse lost to Dayton in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32 last weekend.

Ennis is projected as a mid-first-round pick in June’s draft.

Boeheim spoke with USA TODAY Sports this season about the importance of waiting until the end of the season to discuss the pro potential of his players.

“Carmelo (Anthony) was the best example of this,” Boeheim said in January. “We never talked about the NBA. We never gave it a thought. We thought about winning, winning, winning. That’s all. I’ve seen it happen many times; you can see when players are playing to impress the NBA. That actually works to your disadvantage. NBA people want to see you play with your team. They don’t want to see you doing something out there to help yourself. …

“Tyler is the same he’s been all year. He’s got to get bigger and stronger. He’s got to keep working on his shot. Those things are all NBA things. He’s good now for college. But if you talk about the NBA, that’s something different. He’s doing what he needs to do. He’s focused on college. If more players would do that, they’d be better off and they’d get to where they need to go.”

 

Northwestern football players can unionize

March 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

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In a decision that could fundamentally change what has for decades been called the “plantation mentality” between colleges and their athletes, the National Labor Relations Board sided with a group of Northwestern football players Wednesday, calling them employees who have the right to collectively bargain.

The decision, one that could end up before the Supreme Court and might radically transform college sports, cleared the way for them to hold an election — a big step toward forming college sports’ first union.

Citing the fact that scholarships are tied to performance and the tremendous amount of time student-athletes must dedicate to football, Peter Sung Ohr, the Chicago regional director of the NLRB, ruled that football players are employees of the Evanston, Ill., university — and entitled to

union representation.

Ohr’s ruling only applies to private institutions, but Pittsburgh sports attorney Jay Reisinger said it could lead to far-reaching changes in college sports, which has long been criticized for reaping the benefits of labor without fair compensation for student athletes.

That term, “student-athletes,” is a term colleges came up with to avoid compensation, according to Northwestern. They are employees of the university, which the labor board has recognized.

“I think the importance of the decision is going to be a reformation of the NCAA and how it treats its student-athletes,” Reisinger said. “In my opinion, you’re not going to have a union like the MLBPA or the NFLPA that steps in and represents the college football and basketball players. I think this will lead to some compromise by the NCAA, and how it ultimately treats its student athletes, specifically with protecting them.”

Northwestern officials said the Big Ten school would appeal Ohr’s decision to NLRB officials in Washington, and if the agency upholds Wednesday’s ruling, the case might ultimately wind up before the United States Supreme Court.

“While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it,” the university said in a statement. “Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”

Briefs in the case were filed just last week, according Reisinger, and he said the speed of the decision indicates that Ohr felt the law backed the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), and not Northwestern.

“That was pretty impressive, how quickly the NLRB came to the decision,” Reisinger said. “That’s indicative of how clearly the law favored the athletes in this situation.”

CAPA, the fledgling labor organization that hopes to unionize Northwestern football players, has a long list of demands, which include having schools take steps to minimize football-related brain injuries and coverage for former players who suffer from game-related ailments.

Outgoing Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, a leader in the drive to unionize who testified earlier this year at NLRB hearings, has said nearly all of Northwestern’s scholarship football players support the union drive.

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“The system is groaning under the weight of its own hypocrisy,” said Drexel University sports management professor Ellen Staurowsky, who has written several papers advocating college sports reforms with CAPA founder Ramogi Huma, who is also the president of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group. “This ruling has the potential to clean up a system that has not been well regulated,” Staurowsky said.

Staurowsky said the ruling will probably apply only to men’s basketball and football players because those sports — and their TV contracts — serve as college athletics’ economic engine. Ohr’s decision won’t likely have an impact on non-revenue sports — including women’s sports — in the short term, she said.

“People bring up Title IX, but Title IX only speaks to a student’s access to an education, not compensation,” she said, referring to the ground-breaking 1970s legislation that guarantees women equal educational opportunities.

But the NLRB decision will ultimately affect more than just basketball and football players, said sports marketing expert Frank Vuono of 16W Marketing. “How do you differentiate them from a soccer player, a fencer, a women’s basketball player?” he asked.

“There is no doubt this decision has thrown the college sports landscape into chaos,” Vuono added.

College sports’ skyrocketing TV revenues, Reisinger said, have generated billions of dollars for universities and colleges — and are now pressuring schools to share some of that wealth with the athletes who generate it.

“Back in the ’70s, very few educational institutions in the NCAA were benefitting significantly from television contracts,” Resinger said. “But now that there’s this influx of television money, you see conferences realign themselves for the purpose of gaining more television revenue. It’s purely revenue-driven. Why should they be the only ones that benefit from it?”

The ruling, Reisinger added, pushes the NCAA to take steps to increase player health and safety as well as reform scholarship and transfer rules even if the unionization ultimately stalls.

“It’s time to share,” Reisinger said. “That’s going to be the main impact. I think it’s going to cause the NCAA to reform the way it runs itself. That may alleviate an overall unionization effort amongst college athletes throughout the country.”

Still, Staurowsky said, Ohr made history by ruling that football players are Northwestern employees.

“It’s a historic decision for student-athletes,” she said. “That’s the most important takeaway from the decision today. It has tremendous implications for the rules of college sports.” 

 
 

Once on hot seat, Stanford and Johnny Dawkins a hot team

March 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

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After answering questions about speculation that had swirled over his tenuous job security, Johnny Dawkins walked out of Stanford’s empty dressing room Wednesday at the FedExForum with a reporter and asked, “Did you get everything you needed?”

Just three weeks removed from sitting squarely on the hot seat, Dawkins fielded delicate questions about his concern over being fired with such ease and coolness it was as if he was recounting his favorite memories as a Duke player.

“The word I would use for him is dignity,” said Jay Bilas, the ESPN analyst and close friend of Dawkins who played with him at Duke three decades ago. “He has a great deal of dignity.”

It is a disposition that has remained constant, both through his college and NBA playing career and also earlier this month, when the Cardinal suffered its third consecutive loss March 5 and faced the prospect of missing the NCAA tournament. Had Dawkins not stewarded Stanford into the NCAA tournament for the first time in his six-year tenure, no one would have been surprised if he had been fired.

Dawkins is the first person who acknowledges that his team “underperformed” last season and not only wanted — but needed — to make the NCAA tournament this season. That was the expectation that he established for himself after his team posted a winning conference record in only one of his first five seasons.

“Of course this year, I looked at this year like, ‘Hey, we have to be able to make it. We are good enough. I think we are competitive enough. We have to get it done.’ ” Dawkins told USA TODAY Sports. “So mostly all the pressure is on me. Any kind of pressure that anyone on the outside can put with their expectations would never be — trust me — higher than the expectations than what I have for myself and for my team.”Now Stanford, the No. 10 seed in the South Region, stands as one of the unlikeliest stories of the NCAA tournament. Players say the Cardinal’s success is a testament to resiliency for overcoming injuries to four players that decimated depth. But it’s also a testament to Dawkins’ tunnel vision, which this year established the tenor for Stanford’s season.

This year’s team, Dawkins said, has adopted the mantra of the New England Patriots: Ignore the Noise. As outside criticism mounted and rumors intensified, Dawkins remained in a cocoon. And so did his players. A lot of coaches say they block out negativity. But Dawkins literally hears nothing — good or bad — that is said or written about him.

“I don’t follow any of the press clippings,” he said. “I don’t read anything good or bad about myself. I am oblivious to all the stuff that goes on around me with that. I read about my players. I’m sure they may read about me and may have concerns. For me, it’s all about competing and preparations. All of those (stories) are distractions.”

Whenever Dawkins has been criticized at Stanford, Bilas said, Dawkins never allowed the criticism to filter down to the players. He never placed the blame on anyone but himself. Bilas, whose family has vacationed with Dawkins and his wife, said Dawkins reminds him of former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy in temperament.

“He prepares his team to play and he is there to guide them, but he lets them play,” Bilas said. “He is not one of those guys who will coach every dribble. … He is demanding without being demeaning. He does not act like a psycho like a lot of coaches do.”

And he has also made much-needed adjustments since taking his first head-coaching job after working under his former college coach, Mike Krzyzewski, at Duke. Dawkins first arrived at Stanford in April 2008 with a preconceived notion of how he wanted to play. He wanted his team to play full-court defense and incessantly pressure guards. Then came the realization that that was not the right system.

“I had to readjust as a coach, and I had to grow,” Dawkins said. “My growth was being able to listen and look at new things and say, ‘Okay, how do you devise a system that is going to maximize who these guys are?’ We started making adjustments.”

Adversity arrived on the injury front this season. Andy Brown (torn ACL) and Christian Sanders (hip) missed the entire season. Aaron Bright (dislocated right shoulder) played in the first seven games, and Rosco Allen (stress fracture) played seven minutes against Cal Poly on Dec. 29 before a setback.

Dawkins made adjustments because of his personnel, employing more of a triangle offense to accentuate the team’s strengths. Defensively, he played zone defense nearly 40% of the time this season.

“This thing is personnel driven,” Dawkins said. “You need to max out who they are.”

What Stanford lacks in depth — starters account for 87.3% of the team’s scoring — the team makes up for in size and heady play. Guard Chasson Randle has played all 80 minutes in two NCAA tournament games and committed only two fouls.

A significant development this season was the improvement seen by Stefan Nastic, a 6-foot-11 Canadian center who nearly tripled his minutes (19.7) and more than tripled his scoring average (7.2). He averages 3.3 fouls per game. But being able to play center allows 6-10 Dwight Powell to play power forward and 6-7 Josh Huestis to play small forward.

After playing a tough non-league schedule that included six of this year’s NCAA tournament teams, Stanford started 0-2 in Pac-12 play. The next game, an 82-80 victory at Oregon, served as a pivotal turning point.

“That was one of the moments that really defined us,” reserve guard Wade Morgan said. “You really show who you are when things aren’t going well. We have to really be our biggest advocates.”

Morgan said Dawkins never addressed his job security with the team. But almost every day coaches have emphasized tuning out the noise — both negative and positive. And as Dawkins stands one win away from an improbable Elite Eight berth, the 50-year-old coach maintains composure that has not wavered all season.

“He stays calm and cool,” said assistant Charles Payne, in his sixth season at Stanford. “He never gets too high and definitely never gets too low. That speaks to his experience as a high-level player. He didn’t have coaches who overreacted to the game when he was a player. And so he doesn’t overreact as a coach. That gives our players a sense of calmness.”

The best NCAA tournament game this weekend wasn’t on your bracket

March 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

(Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports)

This 46-year-old building in the middle of the small western Virginia city seems like any nondescript arena you might find in a number of southern towns, with a small sign in the ticket office window boasting a local symphony playing Pink Floyd music and the “Star City Wrestle Fest” featuring John Cena Sr. as the highlights of its April schedule.

But for one weekend every March, this structure and this city of 25,000, which sits just west of Roanoke, becomes a unique basketball Mecca for the players, coaches and fans of Division III’s best men’s teams. Unlike the Division I quartet that will descend on Dallas in 11 days, schools that reach this destination aren’t feted by ESPN cameras, huge corporate sponsored tailgate parties or even a free three-day music festival headlined by Bruce Springsteen. But if they’re lucky, they do have homemade cookies waiting for them.

“When you say the word Salem, guys know what you’re talking about,” Amherst head coach David Hixon, whose team made its sixth semifinal appearance since 2004 this year, told For The Win. “You say the word Salem, that’s the holy grail. One word – Salem.”

The team from Amherst, a small private Massachusetts college and defending Division III national champions, arrived in Salem Wednesday night along with their bitter in-state rivals from Williams College and two Midwestern schools, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Illinois Wesleyan.

When each team landed at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Airport, they were greeted by a local host family, volunteers who assist the players, coaches and their families with dinner reservations, laundry and any other conveniences they need while staying in the area. The Williams players even received homemade cookies from their host, Sue England, who also hosted many of this team’s seniors during their previous Final Four appearance in 2011.

As the NCAA’s Division I showcase grows even more gargantuan with every year, the Division III tournament remains a consistent small-town affair, as schools advance through four rounds of university-hosted regions before heading to the city at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

For The Win traveled down to Salem during the opening weekend of the Big Dance to see what makes this final weekend such a unique destination for the participants and supporters of this level of basketball.

Zephaniah Swift Moore never played a minute of hoops…..

Yet the rivalry between Amherst and Williams took shape in 1821 when Moore, then the president of Williams College, resigned and traveled sixty miles east to found Amherst Academy, which would later become Amherst College. The two schools became basketball nemeses in 1901, predating the first game between Duke and Carolina by 19 years and creating a regional duel that would remain just as intense.

The Williams Ephs (named after school founder Colonel Ephraim Williams) entered Salem with a 117-96 all-time advantage over Amherst, but the Lord Jeffs held a 3-0 lead this season, winning both regular season games and their NESCAC conference tournament matchup.

Unlike the private-public institutional contrast of the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, Williams and Amherst mirror each other in nearly every way. Both teams are made up of kids from all over the country and each team’s current roster boasts two players from New Hampshire’s Philips Exeter Academy, the tony prep school whose famous alums include members of the du Pont, Lincoln, Rockefeller and Shriver families, not to mention a recent graduate named Mark Zuckerberg.

“We like to say we’re the Duke of Division III,” Williams coach Mike Maker said. “It’s a small, private liberal arts college where basketball is important but it doesn’t supercede the academic experience. If you can get a family and young man who buys into that, that’s what attracts them to our situation.”

With no athletic scholarships available at the Division III level, students at any of the participating schools only receive financial aid on a need basis. Williams senior and math major Michael Mayer offered reporters the opportunity to hear part of a presentation on “the gamma theory” that he had given in a class just before leaving for Salem.

“I can recite it for you guys if you’re interested,” he joked.

Most of the players from both teams were recruited by smaller Division I schools and some Ivy League institutions but opted for the opportunity to win a national title instead. Forward Duncan Robinson had opportunities to play for Brown and Columbia but chose Williams. When the Ephs got their fourth shot at Amherst of the season in Friday’s national semifinal game, the 6’7″ forward was unstoppable, leading all scorers with 30 points in a 98-69 rout that neither team saw coming.

It wasn’t much of a tailgate…

Wisconsin-Whitewater fans Dave Clabis, Joe Hansen, Randy Merg, John Gardetto, Logan Peot and Frank Petras (L-R) make up the entirety of the parking lot tailgate scene prior to Friday's semifinal game vs. Illinois Wesleyan. (Chris Strauss, For The Win)

But the six Wisconsin-Whitewater fans drinking Busch Light in the Salem Civic Center parking lot on a beautiful Friday afternoon were giving it their all. Four of them, current or recently graduated students, had just arrived in Virginia about five hours earlier, completing an all-night road trip that started around 6 p.m. Central time the night before.

Joe Hansen had been to Salem plenty of times, but this is probably the first time he got to enjoy the city while drinking a beer and wearing camo shorts, team-logoed sunglasses and a backwards neon hat with the word “Drunk” on it. The starting center on three national championship football teams at Whitewater from 2009-11, Hansen came down to support his former roommate Alex Merg, the basketball team’s senior starting point guard.

“He was here when we played here so I decided to come and return the favor,” Hansen, now a teacher in Wisconsin, said.

The farthest of the four schools from Salem, the Whitewater fanbase also proved to be the most substantial, with several hundred family members and students making the 14 hour trek to a place that’s become a second home to their athletic program.

Since 2002, Whitewater, who won the 2012 national title in basketball, has been to eight national championship football games in Salem, winning five, and won two women’s volleyball championships there as well. With its boisterous fanbase chanting “U-Dub-Dub” for nearly all 40 minutes of Friday’s semifinal, the Warhawks advanced to Saturday’s final with a physical 71-63 win over Illinois Wesleyan.

“When one team goes to Salem, there’s such a tradition of excellence that pushes everybody,” Emily McCullich, a fifth-year senior and former Whitewater women’s basketball player, said. “Everybody supports each other too. It’s a really cool atmosphere to be a part of.”

The man behind 70 national championships

Carey Harveycutter, Salem's director of tourism, in December 2006. (Tim Dillon, USA TODAY)

A statue of Gen. Andrew Lewis, a local hero of the French and Indian and Revolutionary War, greets visitors as they drive up to the entrance of the Salem Civic Center, but it’s Carey Harveycutter who truly welcomes them to town. An employee at the building since he was 16, the city’s director of tourism (he served as the full-time director of civic facilities for 41 years before scaling back to part time last year) decided in the early 1990s that he wanted the town to host a Division III championship football game.

After a presentation convinced the NCAA to move the game from Bradenton, Florida to Salem in 1993, Harveycutter and his staff were such welcoming hosts that the annual Stagg Bowl hasn’t been played anywhere since. Soon after, Salem hosted the Division III softball tournament and when the bid for men’s basketball came up in 1996, he got that too. The weekend’s tournament was the 70th national championship Salem has hosted in the past 21 years. The events bring in between $4.5 and $6 million in additional local revenue annually.

“It’s tough to get ‘em but it’s even tougher to keep ‘em,” Harveycutter said. “This facility, while it looks really good is from 1967. There’s been a lot of great basketball arenas built on college campuses and public facilities that could do a really great job. We try to overcome things like that with great Southern hospitality and trying to be ready when anybody needs something. We know how to handle it and take care of it now.”

In addition to providing the host families, Harveycutter has made the entire event feel like a collective local project. Each team is required by the NCAA to provide some kind of community service when they arrive in Salem, with Harveycutter and his staff pairing them with schools and local charitable organizations.

“It’s a big deal you’d only get in a small community,” Harveycutter said. “Before it was here, basketball was in Buffalo at Buff State. It can’t be as big a deal when you’ve got all those Division I schools right there.”

Two tournaments in two days

American University assistant Scott Greenman (right) spent Thursday coaching in the second round of the D1 tournament in Milwaukee. The next day he was in Salem watching his brother Mike play for Williams College. (Photo: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

Scott Greenman had already seen enough of one powerhouse from Wisconsin this weekend. While the Ephs were preparing for practice Thursday, Greenman, an assistant coach at American University, was in Milwaukee watching his Patriot League champions suffer a 40-point loss to No. 2 seed Wisconsin. After the Eagles decided to charter a plane home to Washington D.C. later that night, Greenman made the decision to drive down to Salem Friday morning to watch his brother Mike, a freshman starting point guard for Williams, play in his first Final Four.

“It’s more nervewracking watching than it is playing,” Scott Greenman, who played at Princeton from 2002 to 2005, said. “Coaching and watching him I probably have the same feeling. You want them to do really well. The less control you have, the more nervous you get.”

Whether it’s in front of 2000 fans or the record-setting 80,000 expected to fill AT&T Stadium, there’s a certain level of anxious energy that enters a gym when the ultimate achievement in that activity is just one win away.

“The thing that really doesn’t change is the kids are still really excited, they still want to win and you can’t do anything differently to change that,” former Atlantic 10 commissioner Linda Bruno, who now oversees Division III’s Skyline Conference, said. “It’s a different kind of event, but we’re all reaching for the same goal. Everyone wants to win a national championship.”

Quardell Young didn’t know who Tyus Edney was

Williams players react after their last-second loss to Wisconsin-Whitewater. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)

It’s understandable that the Wisconsin-Whitewater junior guard hadn’t heard of the former UCLA star, whose coast-to-coast full-court scurry against Missouri with 4.8 seconds left in the second round of the 1995 NCAA tournament remains one of college basketball’s most memorable moments of the past 20 years. Young would have been a toddler when it happened.

While Edney’s play kept UCLA’s championship season alive, it took Young just four seconds to clinch a title for the Warhawks and break Williams’ hearts in the process.

In a spirited game that featured 12 lead changes, Mayer’s tip-in gave Williams a 73-72 edge with just 4.9 seconds left. His teammate Robinson admitted afterwards that he thought “we just won the national championship.”

Instead of calling a timeout, the Warhawks quickly inbounded the ball to Young, who blew by the Ephs defense and drove to the hoop for a layup, drawing a foul and giving Whitewater a 74-73 margin with just 0.9 seconds to go. After making his free throw and a failed last-ditch heave by Williams, Wisconsin-Whitewater claimed its second national title in three years.

“I don’t think you could ask for anything better at our level to have a national championship come down to a finish like that,” Warhawks coach Pat Miller said after the game.

“He’s been an absolute inspiration to our team”

A.J. Bocchini (seated) has been a Wisconsin-Whitewater manager for the past three seasons. (Chris Strauss, For The Win)

After the confetti stopped raining down and the Warhawks accepted their trophy, the players and staff surrounded the basket in front of their bench and started individually climbing the ladder to each cut down a piece of the net. The first strand didn’t go to a player or even to someone with the ability to cut it down on his own.

That fabric instead went to 22-year-old A.J. Bocchini, a team manager for the past three seasons who has become an integral part of the group. Bocchini, who is confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, will graduate next year and hopes to coach at the Division III level at some point in the future.

Bocchini’s father, a high school athletic director, asked Miller when Bocchini enrolled if there was any way to get him involved with the team. He ended up handling the team’s shot clock during home games and becoming one of the locker room’s most spirited personalities in the process.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around anyone as passionate about basketball, in particularly Warhawk basketball, as A.J.,” Miller said. “We got him in the huddle on Thursday at practice and his message to the guys was ‘Finish.’ He’s gone from being a guy who kind of had hung around to a leader. He’s a leader of this team and he inspires guys. You look at the adversity he faces and what he’s willing to go through to be with us, travel with us, be part of our program. You can’t help but look at the guy and love the kid.”

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