Crossing the country, crunching the numbers

Gary McCannMarch 19, 2008 

I-70 WEST, KANSAS -- You don't realize how long a state is until you drive it, especially with Andrew Dys behind the wheel.

With every word, it seems a mile is added.

Kansas is a very long state.

In order to pass the time and to maintain some silence, I've been thumbing through the NCAA Final Four record book trying to figure out the odds Winthrop can beat Washington State in the first round of the East Regional on Thursday in Denver.

The Eagles (22-11) go in as a No. 13 seed. Other than last year's No. 11, it's the best seeding a Winthrop team has had. The Eagles play in the Big South Conference, which isn't exactly a lower league.

They play No. 4 seed Washington State (24-8) out of the Pac-10, considered by some the best basketball conference in America.

To some, Winthrop's odds of winning look like I-70 West across Kansas.

Long, very long.

As Dys wheeled us through that stretch of country you've always dreamed of seeing -- the middle of nowhere -- I thumbed through the record book looking for evidence the Eagles might have a shot. I found being a No. 13 seed might not be such a bad thing.

No. 13 seeds have an overall record of 18-74 in the tournament, including two second-round games. No. 16 seeds are winless against No. 1 seeds, No. 15 seeds are 4-88 against No. 2 seeds and No. 14 seeds are 15-77 vs. No. 3 seeds.

You can see why Winthrop coach Randy Peele, a student of the game, said he'd consider back flips down Main Street if his team got a 13. He knows the history of the game and knew his odds of winning a first-round matchup improved with each step up in the seeding process.

And there's more.

Seeding the NCAA field began in 1979. Since the NCAA expanded the field to 64 teams in 1985, thus creating No. 13 seeds, teams falling into that designation have won 16 times. That's 16 first-round wins in the past 23 tournaments. And half of those first-round wins have come since 1998.

As we whizzed through the land of Dorothy, cows, wheat and F4 tornadoes, I found that the last No. 4 seeds to lose to a No. 13 were Kansas in 2006 (to Bradley) and -- guess who -- Kansas in 2005 (to Bucknell). The folks in Kansas know a thing or two about long highways and being on the short end of long odds.

History, of course, will not dictate what happens on Thursday at the Pepsi Center, but at least there's hope.

Last year, the Eagles were a No. 11 seed and more than one expert gave them a good chance to beat Notre Dame in the first round. The difference between a No. 6 and a No. 11 isn't that great. Winthrop's 74-64 win was evidence the committee probably had the seedings backwards. Winthrop was the better team.

History does do one thing. It can give players confidence, if they've been in the underdog slot before and wound up winning.

Winthrop senior Michael Jenkins said as much during the selection show, saying he, Chris Gaynor, Taj McCullough and Antwon Harris had been in this spot before.

"We've won," Jenkins said. "We know we can do it again."

But how does a No. 13 beat a No. 4?

Simple. Same way Winthrop beat UNC Asheville or High Point.

Defense and execution, especially execution.

In part, the NCAA tournament is about being able to force your will on the other team. You have to do what you do better than the other guy. That's why Winthrop's win over Notre Dame, at times, looked like a layup drill. Winthrop kept running its offense and the Irish couldn't stop it, never did.

While talent is important, playing as a team often pays bigger dividends, particularly in the first round. Some coaches think talent will win in the end, and sometimes it does.

When upsets happen, it doesn't. And that's why the NCAA tournament is special.

Peele likes the matchup with the Cougars even though the two teams play similar styles. It sets up a battle of wills that Peele believes his team can win.

He didn't want to play a team like Pitt or Georgetown or Louisville, one that could press and force his team out of the things it does well. The Cougars don't appear to be quick or deep enough to do that.

But then, the Eagles won't be able to do that to the Cougars either.

One thing is certain. Like the Kansas prairie in the middle of March, Thursday's game will not be pretty.

This one won't be 85-83, probably not 75-73.

Maybe first team to 50 wins.

It's something to think about as we continue to roll through Kansas. Winthrop's odds of winning may not be as long as this highway.

Only 150 miles left.

Then Colorado.

Gary McCann • 329-4074 | gmccann@heraldonline.com

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