- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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It doesn’t seem right to call this group Others, because in college basketball, the Others are what make the game so special.
This is the crew that puts the madness in March, the slipper on Cinderella’s foot and really just all of the clichés into the sport.
Without them, what would we have? Oh right, college football.
Another year gone by and we are still searching for the ultimate Others moment -- when a 16-seed will beat a 1-seed -- but that doesn’t mean this crew didn’t have its share of moments this season. They did.
As the gap between college basketball’s haves and have-nots continues to shrink (at least until autonomy for the Powerball 5 comes into play), these teams are pulling off upsets that are upsets only on paper and mostly because we don’t know what else to call them.
Kind of like others.
What we saw this season: Beware the Atlantic Sun. That was the resounding message delivered this season. A year after Florida Gulf Coast dunked its way to the Sweet 16, Mercer danced its way all over Duke. The Bears were an upset in seed only. Anyone who watched the game knows Mercer was in control from start to finish.
But other than the Bears, North Dakota State and Stephen F. Austin, this NCAA tournament was not terribly kind to Cinderella. Those three, along with Harvard and Dayton, were really the only true ball crashers, and only Dayton made it out of the first weekend.
That was sort of surprising, considering the gaudy records some mid- and low-major teams put together, not to mention the less than steady performance from the big boys.
In-conference upsets didn’t help. Heavy favorite Toledo lost to Western Michigan in the MAC tournament final. Green Bay, a 24-game winner, fell to Milwaukee, in the Horizon semifinals. Robert Morris, which upset Kentucky in last year’s NIT, was the victim this time around, beaten by Mount St. Mary’s in the NEC tourney final, and Belmont never made it out of the Ohio Valley Conference tourney.
The common denominator, though, among those that did succeed was the same as it’s always been: experience. As the top team’s rosters get younger and younger thanks to early NBA entrants, they become more and more vulnerable to savvy veteran squads that aren’t intimidated by the big stage.
Mercer counted five seniors among its top six scorers, a mismatch for the inexperienced Blue Devils; Stephen F. Austin’s starting five included three seniors and a junior, a reason for the Lumberjacks’ perfect 18-0 league record; and for North Dakota State, three seniors and one junior carried most of the weight.
What we expect to see next season: Oh heck, why not. Beware the Atlantic Sun. Chase Fieler helped put the dunk in Dunk City. The end of his run will hurt Florida Gulf Coast, but the Eagles return their other four starters, including a tantalizing backcourt in the form of Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson. Those two were part of FGCU’s Sweet 16 run two years ago. Don’t think they won’t be a little hungry to return.
Ditto Toledo. Knocked out of the MAC tourney and unable to crack the NCAA tourney at-large code, the Rockets, 27-game winners this season, will be a team to reckon with. Tod Kowalczyk’s team loses two starters but returns a talented core led by Julius Brown.
And don’t think the Lumberjacks are done either. Stephen F. Austin won 32 games this season and could be as good next season. Jacob Parker, the Southland’s player of the year, is back, as is Thomas Walkup. Brad Underwood also has a nice recruiting class to add to the mix.
Aside from the players, though, the big news for the future is that, for the most part, these schools were able to retain their coaches. This is where big schools go to find their futures, offering bigger, better-paying gigs.
The carrots were waved, but the moves, mostly, didn’t happen. North Dakota State lost Saul Phillips to Ohio University, but Joe Dooley stayed with Florida Gulf Coast and Bob Hoffman, red hot thanks to Mercer’s upset, came back to the Bears.
Continuity on the bench is as crucial as continuity on the rosters for these schools to stay competitive and keep the big boys off balance.
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