When Cleveland State beat you guys (at Indiana in 1986), it was a major upset that a No. 14 beat a No. 3. Those upsets don't seem as rare these days. Why is that?
Over time, the parity has just gotten greater. There are 330 schools competing for 65 spots. It's different than in football where it's split up into Division I and I-AA and the number of bowl games are out there and available. In basketball, you don' t have that. That's why there's so much pressure just to make it to this tournament. And then once you make it, you want to stay around for a while because getting back is so hard. And I agree, if you think about upsets today, they might not be as great as they were 15 or 20 years ago. It's still the same when you look at the seeding. Individuals like to look at the brackets and the seeding. That's what makes it fun.
You compared what Northwestern State does to what Drake does. How does having Jeff in this game help you given their style?
Yeah, just about the only similarity is the sub pattern. Other than that, there's not really any similarities there. Yeah, they'll full-court press some. They'll three-quarter court press some. They'll mix up the halfcourt from man to zone. They play a lot more man than what Drake has played over the years. They're athletic. They go 11 deep with a lot of athleticism. We know we've drawn an outstanding first-round opponent. We know that we're going to have to improve and get better over our Big Ten Title run of a week ago. We know it's a difficult task, but once you get into the field of 64, every game is difficult. But the sub pattern is probably the only think we've seen of anybody we've played similar to that.
You talked in the past about not getting the leadership you need from your upperclassmen. What has this group specifically or maybe some examples of their leadership?
Last year, we're having a very good year. We're 15-5. We're nationally ranked. We lose our leading scorer, our second-leading rebounder and our second leader in assists; arguably our best defender on Feb. 1. That's when you really saw Bru and Jeff in particular, but you saw a maturing process in guys like Erek and Doug as well. Now, that maturation process has just continued in the spring, this summer, this fall. Those four plus Justin Weick have been really solid in a maturity of understanding what a walk-through is; what a film session is; what a day off means; what you should be doing on your day off to make sure you're maximizing rest; and then how you go about daily practices; the importance of practice; the importance of you're in a shell drill defensively that may look like kind of a slow walk-through. Those are things that really only happen through leadership. They've just been tremendous whether we've been at home or on the road, neutral site. They've always been able to get themselves and their teammates ready to play. We've been through 33 games now and I don't know of a game where I'd say we weren't ready to play. That really falls on the leadership of the seniors. They've done a terrific job.
This team (Northwestern State) resembles, in some ways, last year's Cincinnati team. Is your team more able to handle that kind of athleticism this year that it was last year?
There's been a lot said about Northwestern State's athleticism and depth. And I think all of those are true. I don't know if they're any more athletic than Illinois or Michigan State, Ohio State. We've got to remember the league that we play in. We've played against great athletes. We've played against very big, good inside players, good perimeter players. Through 33 games, we're holding people to 58 points and 38 percent shooting. We've done that against a big-time schedule. We're prepared for it. But again, that's why you throw the ball up and see what happens. I know we've got great respect for them. We've got great respect for their program and what they do and how they've gotten here.
Coach, go back to the Cleveland State game a little bit. Can you talk about how that creeps up on you when you are the favorite and the underdog just kind of hangs around? Is that when players get a little more jittery? Can you take me through that thought process?
Well, 20 years ago, I put Cleveland State behind me. I'd rather talk about Syracuse. If you just want to keep talking about Cleveland State I don't remember about that game. I don't remember nearly as much about that game as I do the following year. But I just think that's college basketball. Those things happen every year. This year is not going to be any different. You're going to have upsets. Usually those upsets happen when you don't have a veteran team, not always. You guys want to talk about my experience, we were sophomores and juniors (during the loss to Cleveland State). An entire class redshirted that year. That doesn't mean we weren't good. We had a very solid year. We had an outstanding year. But then the following year, you add Keith Smart. You add Dean Garrett. And now, we're seniors and juniors. It's a little bit different. Our sophomore year, we weren't in the NCAA Tournament. The junior year kind of snuck up on us. We didn't have a lot of experience. Similar to this years' team, last year we got into the tournament. We didn't stay around for long. This year's team has got a lot more experience to it. We've got to hope that that experience helps us.
You talked about your respect for Northwestern State. Does that come from them going into an SEC building and go into Big 12 building and win this year?
There's no question. You look at their schedule. They've beaten an SEC. They've beaten a PAC-10. They've beaten a Big 12. They've got an incredible resume. This is a very good basketball team. We know that. They're not going to be intimidated or worry about playing a Big Ten opponent. We know we've played a demanding schedule. I don't think whether it was Northwestern State or whoever our first-round opponent was that all of a sudden we were going to frightened of it either. That's why you've got a great first-round match-up here with two teams that are confident, two teams that are playing very well. They've won 15 out of 16. They've done a lot of nice things. We feel like we're playing at a high level right now. It's going to be a great match-up.
With the rumors surrounding you this year, does it make it more enjoyable because you've overcome it or less enjoyable because the team has had to deal with it?
This year has been easy. This has been a fun team. We've had a lot of fun teams in the past. It's really been a lot of fun being one of the head coaches on our campus. It's been a blessing. And this team has made it even more enjoyable. But since those things broke, we're 7-2. Five of those seven wins were against the Top 25 and there's a Big Ten title in that mix. That tells everybody where our focus and energy has been as coaches and as players. That's been a very good stretch. I've been very pleased, not just in that nine-game stretch but with what we've done all season long. We've avoided losing streaks. We've only had two of two games. One was back in December. We're up three with five minutes to go at Northern Iowa and we lose Jeff Horner. That outcome could have been different. I don't know, but it could have been. Then, we go to Iowa State without him. And then the only other one was at Minnesota, at Illinois late in the year. This team has been very consistent. They've been very driven, very motivated and really have understood what they've wanted to accomplish this year.
Have you added any Big Ten Tournament memorabilia to your hotel in New Castle?
(Laughs) Not yet. We will. It's just like the rings that we've got to create. We haven't had time to do that. We're still writing the final chapter of the book. We hope that there are still more things to write about. You don't want to design rings and to design memorabilia if there are still things to add. This team is driven for that. They expected to win a league championship. They expected to win a tournament championship. They led the league for nearly five weeks. We lost it really in the last 10 days. And really, it wasn't anything we did. It was more that Ohio State had some big road wins at Northwestern, at Michigan State. Hats go off to a very good team. We had a very good run in the tournament, beating the three teams that we beat in three consecutive days. They did a lot of special things. But now we're in the Big Dance. It is the last chapter for all of us. We hope that we can continue to proceed through this and add to what already has been a very special season and very special journey for our team.