College Basketball Nation: Vee Sanford

A look around the South Region ...

FLORIDA vs. UCLA

What to watch: An offense-defense matchup for the ages. The Gators are one of the nation's two or three best defenses. They enter Thursday's game ranked No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency (and sixth in pure points allowed per possession). UCLA is one of the nation's best, most efficient, most finesse offenses. The Bruins don't rebound their own misses or draw fouls, but they shoot so well that they usually don't need to.

Who to watch: UCLA guards Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson are two of the nation's best players, and they may be the two most talented players on the court in Thursday's game. But the Gators have some talent of their own and are one of the few teams capable of throwing multiple matchups and looks (Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete, even Patric Young) at Adams and Anderson for 40 minutes.

Why watch: Can anyone stop Florida's march to the Final Four? With Kansas at No. 2 and Syracuse No. 3, the Gators' regional could have been as daunting as any other team's. Now it's up to the Bruins to halt Florida's machinelike run -- or leave it up to Dayton or Stanford on Saturday night.

STANFORD vs. DAYTON

What to watch: Statistically speaking, the two least likely Sweet 16 participants are also the most well-matched: Each team's offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency ranks overlap with the other. But that tells only part of the story. Dayton is a physical and athletic but largely perimeter-oriented team, while Stanford uses its size to hunker down and prevent easy baskets on the defensive end. Can the Flyers shoot over the top?

Who to watch: Dayton's guards and wings have earned the lion's share of praise in the lead-up to this game, and rightfully so -- Vee Sanford, Jordan Sibert, Dyshawn Pierre and Devin Oliver make the Flyers go. Which is why it will be so crucial that Stanford gets a good game out of point guard Chasson Randle on both ends of the floor.

Why watch: Neither of these teams is a true mid-major, and neither is exactly an underdog, either. Dayton is a basketball-obsessed town with a dedicated fan base, and Stanford is, well, Stanford. But basketball-wise, these are still the two teams making the most surprising runs of the tournament to date, and now at least one of them will reach the Elite Eight. That's March at its best, right?

Defying odds, Dayton in Sweet 16

March, 22, 2014
3/22/14
11:57
PM ET

BUFFALO -- The fourth loss in a row came on a banked 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds left, which would be about the time most teams look around and cry uncle.

Sometimes, after all, it’s just not your year.

Instead of heading to the showers, gathering their stuff and shuffling outside, the Dayton players sat at their lockers and talked.

The consensus they arrived at?

“We got this,’’ said Matt Kavanaugh.

Which makes absolutely no sense and all sorts of sense when it comes to these Flyers.

Dayton is an odds-defying miracle of a basketball team, a group that looked as good as dead back in January, that instead won 12 of its next 14; a squad that, in one marvel of an NCAA tournament weekend, survived a buzzer-beater attempt from one of the game’s most reliable seniors in Aaron Craft, and another from one of the game’s most reliable freshmen in Tyler Ennis.

And most important, an 11 seed that not only upset Syracuse 55-53, but also sent a heavily partisan Orange-clad crowd onto the New York Thruway rather than into the Buffalo watering holes to celebrate.

“Nah, I’m not surprised at all,’’ coach Archie Miller said. “They are the most oblivious group I’ve ever been around. That’s partly a curse and partly what makes them so special. They don’t know you’re not supposed to do what they did. They’ve got no baggage, no worries about the NBA or who’s going to score what. They just play.’’

When the Flyers beat Ohio State on Thursday afternoon, they made the requisite celebratory March pile-up to swarm Vee Sanford, who hit the game-winner.

[+] EnlargeJordan Sibert
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsDayton's Jordan Sibert drives past Syracuse's Trevor Cooney.
Two days later when Ennis’ open 3 clanked off the back of the rim, they chest bumped a little, ran over to jump in front of their fans and then abruptly turned to get in line and shake hands.

“We just thought, ‘Why not us?’’ Devon Scott said. “I mean, why not us?’’

It’s a valid question, especially in this topsy-turvy, up is down NCAA tournament but one you wouldn’t expect the Flyers necessarily to ask.

Why not Dayton? Well, besides that January swoon, there is the fact that the Flyers aren’t terribly experienced -- Devin Oliver is a senior, Sanford and Kavanaugh redshirt seniors, the bulk of the roster made up of sophomores and freshmen.

And they aren’t really experienced in this postseason thing. They played one game in the NIT two years ago and sat out every postseason tourney last year.

Heck, forget these players, the last time Dayton was in the NCAA tournament was 2009; the last Sweet 16 was 1984.

Archie Miller was 5.

So that’s the why not them.

But here’s the why.

Call it oblivious, as Miller did, or use the players’ preferred adjective of resilient. Either way what you’ve got is a team that has a serious sense of self. They sat in that locker room after Saint Joseph's guard Langston Galloway banked in the 3 to beat them and decided they would do something about it.

And they did. Not with fanfare or excitement, just methodically.

“That just shows the character of this team,’’ Oliver said. “We didn’t start the conference season the way we wanted to but just told each other, that’s OK. We’ll win them all. And we almost did.’’

Syracuse was almost heading the opposite direction heading to Buffalo. The Orange, winners of 25 in a row to start the season, stumbled into the NCAA tournament, losing five of their last seven.

Still, when Syracuse dismantled Western Michigan in the second round, it was hard not to believe that the Orange had solved what ailed them.

Turns out that was just fool’s gold. The same team that struggled offensively down the stretch was woeful against Dayton. The Orange failed to connect on a single 3-pointer, Ennis’ last-second miss sealing Syracuse’s fate at 0-for-10.

A team that looked ripe for another Final Four run maybe a month ago instead takes the early bus back home.

“Overall it’s hard to win making layups,’’ Jim Boeheim said. “At some point in time you need to knock something down from the perimeter, and we didn’t. It was just not a good offensive game for us.’’

It wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty for Dayton. Following the pattern of the early Saturday game rock fights, the Flyers shot 34.8 percent to the Orange’s 30 for a 20-18, needles-in-the-eye first half.

Yet Dayton, with no experience, never got rattled. The Flyers all but squandered a six-point lead midway through the second half. Ennis started to drive to the basket almost at whim, pushing the Orange to within three with 40.5 left.

And then Oliver clanked the front end of a one-and-one off the rim and Ennis followed up by getting a foul and sinking his two chances to make it 52-51, Dayton with 24.8 seconds left.

Dyshawn Pierre was fouled on the inbounds. He’s a 67 percent free-throw shooter.

“At first I was thinking, ‘I have to make these free throws,'’’ he said. “But then I just didn’t think about it. I just wanted to do it for my team. That’s all that mattered.’’

Naturally he sank both.

Still Ennis with the ball, pushing up the court, well that’s a vision that people have seen before. The freshman made the exact same play against Pittsburgh earlier this year

“My heart was in the bottom of my stomach,’’ Oliver said. “I remember that Pitt game.’’

But that would have been the sensible finish.

Dayton doesn’t do the sensible or the obvious.

The Flyers have their own way of doing things, a blissfully oblivious, illogical logical path that now is headed for Memphis.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Beneath the pile of humanity, under the sea of astonished smiles and celebratory hugs, somewhere flat on his back was Vee Sanford, victim of the scrum and hero of the game.

It is March, and this is what March is: a 15-man pileup in the middle of a court, and a kid at the bottom who left a more certain postseason future at one school on the promise of a coach at another; who started 31 games as a junior and then nodded and said nothing when pushed to the bench as a senior.

[+] EnlargeVee Sanford
Elsa/Getty ImagesDayton's Vee Sanford scored 10 points, including the game winner, in the Flyers' upset of Ohio State.
And this is also March -- a good hour later, interviews done, locker room closed, teammates in their warm-up gear heading to the bus, and Aaron Craft still in his uniform, socks off, tape still wrapped around his ankles, walking into the hallway to hug his former teammate Jordan Sibert, who now plays for the team that just ended his college career.

Thousands of words have been penned about the ecstasy and agony of this tournament, and thousands more will be written. March is the surest thing in sports, a guaranteed thrill-making, gut-wrenching run to a title.

This one, though, might have outdone itself, delivering a well-played and emotionally frayed game from the opening tip.

No. 11 seed Dayton won 60-59 against No. 6 seed Ohio State, with Sanford scoring the game winner on a drive down the right side of the lane and only after Craft's barreling layup rolled around the rim and off as the buzzer sounded.

"It's March," Dayton's Devin Oliver said. "It's just crazy."

The narrative in lots of places will be about the little brother Flyers taking it to their shadow-making Buckeyes big brothers. But in the end this game is always about much smaller pictures than the big ones.

It's about the players.

For four years, Craft has been the personification of what people want this college game to be about (excluding, that is, the folks who find fault with a no-curse, no-drink, straight-A, heart-on-his-sleeve basketball player).

Nearly impeccable in every other part of his life, Craft certainly hasn't been without flaw on the basketball court, and this game was hardly a maestro effort. He had five turnovers and only four assists, an upside-down box score for him.

And when the game was on the line, the ball was where it belonged -- in his hands.

With 15.5 seconds left, Craft drove left and somehow managed to scoop in an up-and-under layup with his left hand to put the Buckeyes up one, 59-58.

Twelve seconds later, the ball was in his hands again. Barreling down the court, he bull-rushed his way through two defenders, tossing up a decent Hail Mary of a layup that twisted around the rim before dropping off.

"I just tried to get up the floor as quickly as possible," Craft said. "There's only four seconds left. That's kind of how our season has gone. I thought I got it up there high enough and I obviously didn't, so ..."

No, this time Craft was outdone by someone who lacks his fame but really isn't so different.

Sanford, someone Oliver described as a "go-about-your-business kind of guy," started his career at Georgetown but decided to transfer when he was unable to squeeze in much playing time.

He took a chance on Dayton and coach Archie Miller, leaving the Hoyas' pedigree for a new coach trying to build his brand.

"I just trusted Coach Miller's plan," Sanford said.

[+] EnlargeDayton Celebration
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsNo. 11 seed Dayton will now play No. 3 seed Syracuse on Saturday.
But then Miller's plan changed. Sanford started every game for the Flyers last season, averaging 12.3 points per game. But, with a host of freshmen coming in, Miller thought Sanford would be of more help coming off the bench.

The two discussed the idea at the beginning of the season.

"He never said a word about it," Miller said. "Never complained once. Still hasn't. For him to have that chance, it's poetic justice. So much of what we do and have been able to do as a team this year is because of him and his presence. For him to have that shot, a shot that's going to be played over and over again, it's perfect."

Three players on the Dayton team average more points than Sanford -- Sibert, Dyshawn Pierre and Oliver -- but when Miller signaled a timeout to set up the game winner, he put the ball in Sanford's hands.

No one was surprised.

"He's our best downhill option," Oliver said. "As soon as he got that first step, I knew he'd make a play at the rim."

Miller told Sanford to go right, which wasn't exactly a surprise, either. Craft, defending on the play, suspected as much.

Still, Sanford was able to get that first step and blow by, of all people, Craft.

"It's amazing the way that, you know, defense has kind of been my thing and how it's going to end with a kid getting the game winner on me," Craft said.

The winning shot was a floater kissed off the glass, a shot Sanford said he perfected as a fourth-grader back when his father added it to his repertoire because his boy was always so much smaller than everyone else.

As these things go, Sanford described it over and over after the game, as wave upon wave of reporters found him in the hallway outside the locker room.

With little emotion and not a trace of arrogance, he explained it again and again, until finally everyone had had their fill and Sanford walked off.

His teammates had all but cleared out of the locker room by then.

He was the last to leave.

Just like Craft.

The same and yet so different, as March tends to be.

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