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March 10, 2005 - Image 9

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Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 2005-03-10

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Thursday
March 10, 2005
sports. michigandaily. com
sports@michigandaily.com

POeRwodtgn tiS

9A:

Writers
take on

Bummed out by Blu

«w

e?

Give mid-majors a shot

Big

Ten

hoops
By The Michigan Daily basketball writers
While driving to Chicago for the Big Ten
Tournament, the Daily basketball beat decid-
ed to reflect on the conference season and look
ahead to this week's tournament and beyond.

Biggest sur-
prise of the Big
Ten season:
Eric Ambinder:
Minnesota. The
Gophers were
supposed to finish
near the bottom of
the Big Ten this
season, but Vin-

TrnDA
i«Iicl~riti t'
united Cs tlnc

cent Grier decided
to play ball. Now, they're probably dancing.
Megan Kolodgy: Michigan. I don't think
anyone could have anticipated a season this
heartbreaking.
Will Illinois win the Big Ten Tourna-
ment?
E.A.: Definitely. They're extremely pissed
off after losing to the Buckeyes. Expect Wis-
consin to play them tight in the finals.
Brian Schick: If the Illini don't, they're
throwing it on purpose. When Illinois is fir-
ing on all cylinders, it is nearly impossible to
stop. No one in the Big Ten should give them
much trouble, except maybe the Sparties.
Will Michigan beat Northwestern?
M.K.: I only brought one game's worth of
dress clothes - so that might tell you some-
thing. I guess I'll eat my words if they do.
B.S.: It'll be close, but I actually think Mich-
igan can squeak out a win if the frontcourt can
hold Vedran Vukusic under 15 points.
Josh Holman: Hell yes. We haven't seen a
bright spot yet this season, so it must be on
the horizon.
Most NBA-ready Big Ten player:
E.A.: Wisconsin's Mike Wilkinson. Dee
Brown also has a shot, but Wilkinson moves

SgHUrsAskHgs/saiy
Sophomore guard Dion Harris looks to keep Michigan's season alive in the Big Ten Tournament.

great for a big guy, can shoot and is extremely
consistent.
J.H.: He's too small for the NBA and he
talks too much, but Brown translates his size
into hellacious defense and has plenty of game
to back up the talk.
Which Big Ten coach will be fired in the
off-season?
J.H.: If Indiana loses Friday's game against
Minnesota tomorrow, Mike Davis will be on
the hot seat all offseason.
B.S.: Ed DeChellis is definitely on the
chopping block. Going 1-15 in the Big Ten,
even for Penn State, isn't getting the job done.
The team hasn't shown any improvement in
the past few years. I don't see any "DeChellis
Daquiri" ice cream flavor at the Penn State
Creamery any time soon.
Will any current Michigan player ever
make an NBA roster:
E.A.: Dion Harris has a chance if he plays
his heart out for the next two seasons. Petway
could be a second rounder in the future if he
develops offensively.
J.H.: Dion Harris is too small, Courtney
Sims is too weak, and then, push comes to
shove, you can't count on Daniel Horton. If

Lester Abram's injuries don't scare away
scouts, he may have as a great chance as any-
one at Michigan.
M.K.: If Brent Petway really works on some
fundamentals - dribbling, for example -
then maybe he could. The occasional 3-pointer
at the end of the season gave me hope.
Does Brent Petway have a future in rap
music:
M.K: Maybe - I think he needs better
backup, though. Also, he might want to work
on his general rhyming skills. I mean, rhym-
ing Hunter with Hunter - twice? You've got
to have something better than that.
B.S.: I like "No. I." It's a catchy riff from
the SportsCenter theme, and he won Mock
Rock by break dancing by himself (when he
had an injured shoulder, no less).
Will Michigan make it to the NCAA
Tournament next season?
E.A: I don't want to jinx anything.
M.K.: Why not?
B.S.: I said that this year was supposed
to be "the year" to make the Tourney and
it wasn't, so I guess they won't go next year
either.
J.H.: Hell yes.

iagara was down by four when I realized that
my March Madness had already started.
After the two teams traded baskets for the
first 10 minutes, Rider had taken a 21-17 lead over the
Purple Eagles in the championship game of the Metro
Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.
And I was standing up, alone in my dorm room,
screaming at the tele-
vision. A bid to the
NCAA Tournament was
on the line, and I wasc
begging Niagara not to
let poor defense keep it
from the Big Dance.
Such is the life of a
mid-major (or lower) STEPHANIE WRIGHT
college basketball fan. Wright on Target
I grew up in Buffalo,
N.Y., a city of dedicated sports fans without a major
college team in the immediate area. Instead, we have
a group of small and mid-major schools that we call
the Big Four - Buffalo, Canisius, Niagara and St.
Bonaventure.
While Buffalo and St. Bonaventure are arguably the
more high-profile programs, I've had a soft spot in my
heart for the two MAAC schools ever since my middle
school marching band served as Canisius's pep band
at the 1997 tournament. For three straight nights, we
had courtside seats, cheering for the Golden Griffins
during the game and performing on the floor of HSBC
Arena at halftime. We felt like part of the team. So
when Canisius lost in the championship game, I think
we were as devastated as the players were.
This year, it's Niagara who has captivated the col-
lective consciousness of Buffalo sports fans. It has
been 35 years since Calvin Murphy led the Eagles to
their last NCAA Tournament berth. Under coach Joe
Mihalich, Niagara has played in three of the last four
conference championship games but has lost each
time. And this year, with MAAC Player of the Year
Juan Mendez at center and the support of more than
6,000 local fans, the Eagles earned another shot at the
title. They won the chance to dance, ultimately beat-
ing Rider by 22 points.
I almost wore purple on Tuesday to celebrate.
But small conference basketball tournaments are
exciting even without a hometown connection to spur
your interest. It seems like every year, in the days
leading up to Selection Sunday, there's a compelling
story or a wild finish you have to see to believe. These
games boast a desperation that the major conference
tournaments lack. Because, for almost every team
involved, winning the championship game is the only
way to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
And a team from suburban Detroit probably knows
that better than anyone in the notion right now.
After compiling a 12-18 record in the regular sea-

son, the Oakland Golden Grizzlies rattled off three-
consecutive victories and stunned Oral Roberts to
capture the Mid-Continent Conference crown and
an automatic berth. That game had everything that
makes these tournaments special - an underdog
pulling off an upset, a last-second, game-deciding shbt
and a no-name player turning into a hero.
Pierre Dukes averages just four points per game
and almost didn't make the Grizzlies' squad. But with
1.3 seconds left on the clock, Dukes sank his only shot
of the second half to win the game for Oakland.
Before he hit that game-winning shot, Dukes had
virtually no chance of ever being remembered for his
college basketball career. But once the ball dropped
through the net, his legacy was secured, at least in the
hearts of Oakland fans.
While their excitement is understandable, it's
almost ironic. Just think about what these teams
receive for winning - a chance to be destroyed in
the first round of the NCAA Tournament. There are
exceptions, like 2004 MAAC champion Manhattan
knocking out No. 5 seed Floridi. But for every Cin-
derella who finds her glass slipper, there are dozens
of teams from minor conferences that get just once
dance.
Each small conference champion has basically
ensured that its season will end with a loss. Obvi-
ously, there are just two Division I schools that can
be guaranteed to win their final game - the NCAA
champion and the NIT champion. But most of the
major schools have at least some hope of winning it,
all. The fact that small conference champs have about'
as much chance of winning the NCAA tourney as If7
have of making a WNBA roster makes their over-the-
top celebrations even more remarkable.
Take Oakland for example. Do the Grizzlies really
believe they can compete with the North Carolinas
of the basketball world? Probably not. But that didnt
stop them from celebrating exuberantly at midcourt
when the final buzzer sounded.
Teams like Oakland are genuinely excited simply
to qualify for the Big Dance.
For a minor team that wins its conference champi-
onship to advance to the NCAA Tournament, it truly
is an honor just to be there.
Just ask Mihalich. It has been his lifelong dream to
coach in the NCAA Tournament. With his 80-year-
old mother receiving chemotherapy to treat colon
cancer, that dream took on a different urgency this
season. Mihalich fulfilled his promise to his mother,
and she gets to be there to see it - if only for a game.
Did I say Buffalo didn't have a major college team?
It does now. Niagara is going to the Big Dance.
And I'll be wearing purple next weekend.

Stephanie Wright can be reached'at
smwr@umich.edu

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