- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

Yes, Hampton University coach Steve Merfeld said, he and his team are happy to be at MCI Center, playing No.2 seed Connecticut today in the first round of the NCAA East regional. But no, he added, his players are not happy just to be here, even though the 15th-seeded Pirates are serious underdogs.
Again.
"We're excited about [the game]," Merfeld said. "I know that our kids are playing with great confidence. They'll be ready to play."
Such talk is typical before the tournament. Every coach says his team has a chance and believes it can win, even when the chance is miniscule and the belief false. But Merfeld and his Pirates have something tangible to back up their words history. This is familiar territory.
Playing in the West Region in Boise, Idaho, last year, 15th-seeded Hampton shocked the basketball world, to say nothing of Iowa State, which entered the tournament seeded second and left after losing to the Pirates 58-57.
Hampton lost to Georgetown in the second round, then lost three senior starters, plus another starter who was kicked off the team. But the Pirates (26-6) are back in the postseason after winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular season (17-1) and tournament, becoming the only 15th seed to win an NCAA tournament game and return the following year.
It might be even tougher for the Pirates this time. Connecticut (24-6), the Big East champ, has won nine straight and probably is playing at a higher level than was Iowa State. But if Hampton somehow pulls off another stunner, expect Merfeld to act a bit more restrained.
Last year's wild postgame celebration was highlighted by the vertically challenged Merfeld, in a state of pure joy bordering on delirium, being hoisted by one of his players, arms and legs flailing. There is a framed picture of the moment in the basketball office, and the video has been shown countless times.
Merfeld said he was upset that he didn't immediately get to talk to Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy, who caught up with him later and congratulated Merfeld and his team.
"I learned a great lesson from him, how gracious he was in defeat," Merfeld said.
Some of the players, however, can't get enough of recapturing the most magical moment in Hampton's basketball history.
"I've got the tape at home," junior forward Isaac Jefferson said. "I watch it almost every day."
Merfeld, a 40-year-old Wisconsin native who said he wanted to be a coach when he was in third grade, was an assistant at Hampton when coach Byron Samuels suddenly left in 1997 to become an assistant at Tennessee. Merfeld was promoted to interim coach but shed the label when the Pirates won 14 games, becoming the first white coach in the MEAC.
Merfeld suddenly has become a hot commodity Florida State is rumored to be interested and his work this season, especially, demonstrates why. After losing the top three scorers from last year, Merfeld booted forward Cleveland Davis, who started 10 games, off the team in November. That left Adams as the only returning starter, and no player stood taller than 6-foot-7.
Essentially starting four guards, Merfeld remade his club, installing a perimeter game and emphasizing the Pirates' quickness. In the opener, Hampton traveled to North Carolina and beat the Tar Heels 77-69, thereby setting the tone for the rest of the year.
"I think that win springboarded us to the type of season we had," Merfeld said. "What it did was allow this team to establish its own identity. We talked about that from day one, that this is a new challenge.
"But until you get on the floor and actually compete against another team, talk is cheap. That win gave this team the identity it has. It gave them an opportunity to trust each other, to trust the coach and trust the system because we're playing in an entirely different way."
Hampton's first opponent is wary.
"We know that on any given night, they're a team that can come out and upset somebody," said UConn's Caron Butler, the Big East player of the year. "So what we've got to do is play hard, and hopefully it won't be us."


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