NCAA Tournament: Northwestern developing new mentality as it enters foreign territory

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By Netta-Lee Lax

SALT LAKE CITY — Going into the 1995 PSAL High School Basketball Championship, one could argue that Stephon Marbury was under pressure. A family touted as New York City basketball royalty, three of the four Marbury boys had failed to bring Lincoln High School a city title. Stephon, considered to be one of the best young talents in the nation, had also failed in the years prior. Now in his senior season with 11 seconds left and his team up by just a point, Marbury stepped to the line. This was his last chance to win the coveted title. There he stood, just 18 years old, on the line at “The World’s Most Famous Arena”. Two dribbles and one deep breath, the future NBA All-Star looks to the hoop and sticks his tongue out as his fingers glide off the pebbled leather.  The tension in the air is palpable, even in watching the old film. Marbury would sink both free throws before jumping in the air ecstatically as he realizes that he had just done it – a Marbury boy had finally won a title for Lincoln. The pressure, for the moment, was released.

“I’d be hard-pressed to think there was anybody in the country that played with more pressure than us, the constant daily, will they make it, are they going to collapse, is this the Northwestern we’re always used to seeing?” – Northwestern coach Chris Collins

With just over four minutes left in Northwestern’s first NCAA Tournament appearance, Dererk Pardon stepped to the line.  Northwestern led Vanderbilt, 57-55, but as Pardon prepared to shoot his free throws, the pressure that Northwestern coach Chris Collins alluded to seemed to boil over. The raucous crowd simmered down and my palms started to sweat. I covered Northwestern basketball throughout my four years at the school and often feel personally invested in their success. To this point – in the entire history of the program – these two free throws made for the biggest moment in program history. I typed up my notes, my hands too shaky to scribble anything legible, “Still over 4 minutes left when Pardon hits a pair from the line, but you’d think this was Stephon Marbury about to clinch the city title at MSG.” This was, for Northwestern fans, a moment of legend.

“The last time out before my free throws, Coach said, it’s about toughness, that was in my head the whole time” recalled Pardon, “And before one of my free throws he said, I believe in you. And that gives you a lot of confidence.”

Deep breaths taken, eye on the prize, Pardon sunk them both. Over the course of the next four minutes, Northwestern would go to the marked line four more times. In the last two minutes of the game, the lead would change hands six times.  One might even argue, the pressure was mounting.

As Collins put it, “Your stomach is churning, because you want it so badly.”

The crowd grew quieter and quieter every time Vanderbilt took the lead and louder and louder each time Northwestern stole it back, but those free throws – that was where you could really sense how much this meant to this team, to this staff and to these fans.

They call them the Cardiac ‘Cats. Northwestern is better known for its failures in the athletic realm than its successes. The last time I covered the Wildcats at a major basketball tournament was the 2012 Big Ten Conference Tournament. An event marked by a first round meltdown that assured Northwestern’s all-time leading scorer would never burst the bubble and make it to the dance. It was the final game in a season filled with last minute collapses (Looking at you, Jared Sullinger). But the history of struggles on the hardwood can be traced back to the very first NCAA Final Four which was played on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Yet until today, Northwestern was the only  power conference team to have not danced in March. The further you dig into Northwestern’s basketball history, the more heartbreak you find. From legitimate tragedy when former coach Ricky Byrdsong was murdered while walking with his two children, to unfortunate parts in historic events like Wilt Chamberlain scoring 52 points in his University of Kansas debut or as one article described it the “spanking” of Northwestern. Legendary coaches like Tex Winter (head coach from 1973-1978) have tried and failed (Winter finished with a 42-89 record) where Collins has finally succeeded. In the last five years, Northwestern has won two bowl games (having not won a single bowl game for 64 years prior to 2013) and now has at least one victory in the NCAA Tournament. This is foreign territory they’ve encountered. This is a new sort of Wildcat mentality.

This season Northwestern racked up the most wins in the 112 year history of the program and as March rolled in the ‘Cats all but secured a place in the big dance for the first time with an epic last-second win over the Michigan Wolverines. With less than two seconds left in regulation Nathan Taphorn inbounded a quarterback pass, throwing the ball the length of the court right into the hands of Pardon who laid it in for the Wildcat victory. That game, explained Collins, was a turning point for the team’s mentality.

“I’ve noticed ever since winning that Michigan game we’ve relaxed and got back to playing the way we were playing all year,” Collins said.

Nine days later the Wildcats again made program history when they won two games in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time. A few days after that they finally saw their name in the bracket, I “mean the watch party was a day we’ll never forget,” recalled Collins, “Because that was history. That’s a moment that will live with me and us forever, because that was doing something that’s never been done.”

Tonight was also something that had never been done before and the pressure was on.

“We are doing this for more people than just ourselves,” senior Sanjay Lumpkin said. “We are doing this for people like Billy McKinney, Jim Stack, Drew Crawford – all these older players that have played for this program. So many people have been a part of this.”

Pardon was a mere 52 percent from the line during the regular season and through the Big Ten Tournament, but he knocked down all six of his free throws in the final stretch of this game. He was infallible and unflappable.

“I was really proud of Dererk, especially” explained Collins, “He’s had his struggles at the line throughout his career. He works at it religiously every day. For him to walk up and make six in a row in the last [four minutes], I was really proud of him.”

Dribble, deep breath, swish.  The tension, for the moment, was released.

Kansas, Gonzaga, Oregon, Xavier eye Final Four with Elite Eight underway

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) It’s finally time to award the first spots in the Final Four.

And for the four teams chasing those tickets Saturday, it’s another shot to break through an often frustrating roadblock in the regional finals.

Kansas lost in the Elite Eight last year. So did Oregon, which won the first NCAA Tournament in 1939 but hasn’t pushed past the final eight since.

While those two teams meet in the Midwest Region final in Kansas City, Missouri, the West final in San Jose, California, features two teams – Gonzaga and Xavier – who have never won in this round.

Kansas coach Bill Self called it “the hardest game in the tournament.”

“There’s so much emphasis on the road to the Final Four,” Self said Friday. “It’s almost like the Final Four could be the equivalent of the national championship 30 years ago, with the type of intensity and the type of publicity it gets. … If you get beat in this game, you come just that close to getting to the goal.”

Kansas (31-4) has had the most success of that quartet, though there’s been plenty of frustration, too. The Jayhawks, the Midwest’s No. 1 seed, won the national title under Self in 2008 and went to the title game in 2012. But along the way, there have been four Elite Eight losses under Self – three coming despite carrying a 1-seed.

Kansas is chasing its first Final Four since that 2012 run.

Oregon (32-5), the Midwest’s 3-seed, is in the Elite Eight for the fourth time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The Ducks have lost their last three, including to Kansas in 2002.

In the West, both 1-seed Gonzaga (35-1) and 11th-seeded Xavier (24-13) are each in the regional finals for a third time.

“All the games we feel the pressure to move on, to advance,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “This one, a little bit more because that Final Four is the goal of everybody.”

Here are things to know about the NCAA Tournament’s second week:

HEADLINING NAMES: The Midwest final features a national player of the year candidate in Kansas’ Frank Mason III and a preseason Associated Press All-American in Oregon’s Dillon Brooks. Mason, a 5-foot-11 senior, is averaging 20.9 points on 49 percent shooting, while Brooks – a 6-7 junior – is averaging 16.3 points.

LEGACY: Gonzaga’s Few has built a consistent winner in the Pacific Northwest, though that Final Four is the glaring omission from the resume. Still, Few has routinely refused to be consumed by the pursuit.

“It would be awesome for the school and for the Spokane community to be able to feel good about and hang their hat on,” Few said. “But my legacy is going to be about other things, at least as far as I’m concerned.”

SUMNER’S ABSENCE: No one expected Xavier to be here, especially after losing point guard Edmund Sumner to a season-ending knee injury in January. The Musketeers also lost six straight before regrouping to reach the Big East Tournament championship game and now an Elite Eight after upsetting 2-seed Arizona on Thursday night.

“We’re all tough guys,” junior guard J.P. Macura said. “We stuck together. And we’ve been playing tough together. And we’re not really backing down from anybody. And if you have that mentality, you can beat a lot of teams.”

BLUEBOOD BRACKET: Kentucky beat UCLA in the South Region semifinals on Friday night in Memphis, Tennessee, to claim a matchup of teams with a combined 19 NCAA titles. Now the second-seeded Wildcats are preparing for another marquee name in 1-seed North Carolina, which cruised past Butler, on Sunday.

A NEW SEC TOURNAMENT: The Southeastern Conference enters the regional finals standing alone among leagues. The SEC has three of the eight teams still standing with Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina – and is assured at least one Final Four team considering the Gators and Gamecocks play Sunday in the East final.

FINALLY, AN OVERTIME: The Gators’ 84-83 win against Wisconsin on Friday night on Chris Chiozza’s running 3-pointer marked the first overtime game of the tournament. And that came only after Badgers guard Zak Showalter hit an off-balance 3 with 2.5 seconds left in regulation to force the extra period.

FAREWELL: It didn’t take long after UCLA’s loss to Kentucky for star freshman point guard Lonzo Ball to say he was moving on from the college game. He had been considered a likely one-and-done NBA prospect all year and called Friday’s loss “my final game for UCLA.”

Elite Eight betting preview: Gonzaga, Kansas among the weekend favorites

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One trend to take into the Elite Eight is that the Gonzaga Bulldogs and star guard Nigel Williams-Goss rarely lose when they have fresh legs.

The Bulldogs are listed as eight-point favorites against the Xavier Musketeers with a 145.5-point total for their West Region final betting matchup at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

Gonzaga is 14-1 straight-up in its last 15 games with one day of rest, as well as 5-0-1 against the spread in its last six games as a favorite of eight or fewer points. Xavier, which will have to break down Gonzaga’s stifling defense in order to get forward Trevon Bluiett his touches, is 5-0 ATS in its last five games as an underdog of eight points or fewer.

The total has gone UNDER in six of Xavier’s last seven games. The total has gone UNDER in six of Gonzaga’s last eight games. Neither team has ever made the Final Four, which is set for next weekend in Glendale, Arizona.

The Kansas Jayhawks are listed as 7-point favorites against the Oregon Ducks with a 156-point total in the Midwest Region final betting matchup. The Jayhawks and Frank Mason III are playing close to home in Kansas City, while Kansas is also 22-2 SU in its last 24 games against the Pacific-12.

Oregon, an athletic team with leaders such as Dillon Brooks, should challenge Kansas’ interior defense. Oregon is 7-3 ATS in its last 10 games against the Big 12. The total has gone OVER in eight of Oregon’s last 10 games.  The total has gone OVER in Kansas’ last five games.

The other two tickets to the Final Four will be awarded on Sunday.

In a betting matchup involving college basketball bluebloods, the North Carolina Tar Heels face the Kentucky Wildcats in the South Region final as 3-point betting favorites.

North Carolina is 7-3 ATS against Kentucky since 2006-07, although the Wildcats have had the better of the matchup more recently. Historically speaking, North Carolina is 7-3 SU and 6-4 ATS in the Elite Eight since 1997. Over that same span, Kentucky is 6-4 SU and 5-5 ATS.

And the Florida Gators and South Carolina Gamecocks meet in an all-Southeastern Conference matchup to decide the East Region final. Florida is 8-2 SU and 6-4 ATS in their last 10 games against the Gamecocks, but all of the Gators’ outright defeats were within the teams’ three most recent meetings. Florida is a 3.5-point betting favorite for the matchup.