- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

It usually takes a confluence of experience, sweet shooting, a favorable draw and a little bit of luck for one of college basketball’s little guys to pull off a shocker or two in the NCAA tournament.

Doing it again might be twice as difficult.

It is the scenario both Bucknell and Wisconsin-Milwaukee face this week as they attempt to reprise their dual roles as bracket busters and national darlings. Bucknell stunned Kansas in the first round last season, while Wisconsin-Milwaukee upended both Alabama and Boston College during a surprising Sweet 16 run.

Former Hampton coach Steve Merfeld knows all about it. Everyone remembers when Merfeld was lifted off the ground by freshman David Johnson after the Pirates stunned second-seeded Iowa State in the first round of the 2001 tournament.

Hampton’s subsequent berth in the 2002 field — and the scare it put into Connecticut — isn’t as well known. But maybe it should be — a No. 15 seed that won an NCAA game had never returned to the tournament the next year before the Pirates and none has since.

“In my mind, the greater accomplishment was getting back to the tournament,” said Merfeld, now the coach at Evansville. “We had lost 70 to 75 percent of our scoring. We were really a different team when we went back. A lot of the players we had were in supporting roles [in 2001], and most importantly they just expected to win.”

Coppin State also expected to win in 1998, a year after it stunned second-seeded South Carolina and nearly ousted Texas in the tournament. The Eagles brought back a gritty backcourt of Antoine Brockington and Danny Singletary, navigated a typically brutal schedule that included a nationally televised game at Arizona, won the MEAC regular season and reached the conference final.

Then in the final minute, Coppin was whistled for a traveling call coach Ron “Fang” Mitchell still vividly remembers. The Eagles were up three at the time but wound up losing 66-61 to South Carolina State.

“I know exactly what his hair looked like,” Mitchell said of the offending player.

Maybe that memory sticks with Mitchell because the Eagles still haven’t returned to the tournament. They still play a loaded nonconference schedule, and their reputation as giant-killers was secure long before their run in Pittsburgh — just ask Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose Terrapins fell to Coppin in 1989 and never lost another nonconference game at Cole Field House.

The NCAA drought nearly ended this season after the Eagles finished second in the regular season, but another conference tournament loss left the Baltimore school at home for the postseason again.

“People are still looking for us to get back to the tournament …,” Mitchell said. “People recognized our program in the basketball world. [But] 1997 was our introduction to the outside world that we played quality basketball at Coppin State.”

Last year’s tournament run had a similar effect on Vermont, even if the Catamounts lost much of that team. Vermont’s rabid but knowledgeable fan base realized the Catamounts would be without Taylor Coppenrath, T.J. Sorrentine and three other seniors who helped upset Syracuse last year.

The rest of the America East wasn’t so quick to acknowledge the three-time league champs’ departures, which also included longtime coach Tom Brennan.

“[Our fans] knew we graduated so much, so the expectations weren’t there,” said Vermont’s Mike Lonergan, who previously coached at Catholic and was a Maryland assistant last year and led the Catamounts to the America East final this month. “What hurts you is to go to Binghamton, who is third in the league, and they beat you in double overtime and they storm the court. They’re storming the court because we have Vermont on our jersey.”

In the longer term, it is simply difficult to repeat such a run, especially for a team in a one-bid league. For a Hampton, a Coppin State or a Vermont, a single NCAA tournament victory itself is an incredible accomplishment, one usually accompanied by a veteran team and just a little bit of magic that is difficult to replicate at any other time.

“Them winning, what are we ever going to be able to do?” Lonergan remembered wondering when he took the Vermont job. “That team, they did it all.”

So did Valparaiso. The 13th-seeded Crusaders were the story of the first weekend of the 1998 tournament when Bryce Drew (the son of coach Homer Drew) drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Mississippi. Valpo then knocked off Florida State in overtime to reach the second weekend of the tournament.

The Crusaders’ more recent NCAA appearances have ended more predictably, perhaps because nearly everyone in the tournament was aware of their fame. They were clobbered by Maryland in the first round in 1999 and later endured blowout losses to Michigan State (2000), Kentucky (2002) and Gonzaga (2004).

Often, the architect of the upsets parlays the surprise success into a high-profile gig. Mack McCarthy left Chattanooga for an assistant’s job (and eventually the top gig) at Virginia Commonwealth in 1997. Steve Alford jumped from Southwest Missouri State to Iowa after the Bears reached the Sweet 16 in 1999. Kent State’s surprising run to the Elite Eight helped Stan Heath land a job at Arkansas.

None of those schools has won a tournament game since, which has to give pause to Wisconsin-Milwaukee fans entering tomorrow’s game against Oklahoma. Last year’s coaching sweepstakes winner was Bruce Pearl, who went to Tennessee after guiding the Panthers to the regional semifinals. (Bucknell coach Pat Flannery stayed with the Bison, who play Arkansas on Friday).

Mitchell remained at Coppin State, where he is also the athletic director. He receives dozens of calls at this time of year from reporters curious about a single victory from nearly a decade ago, and he clearly savors telling the stories of the players who pulled the upset. Coppin State has never matched that victory, but it still serves as a reminder of what is possible.

“It becomes so important,” Mitchell said. “My statement is ‘You measure a man by his deeds.’ Once you have success, they can’t take it away. We can lose 20 more games. It doesn’t matter. You have had that opportunity. You have been successful.”

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