The Eagles (17-12) will be one-and-done because this O-State team (29-3) is built on character and desire as much as it is talent and ability. OSU players believe, without hesitation, that their club is capable of winning the game, winning the Big 12, winning the national championship – no matter what obstacles come up.
Maybe it happened when Eddie Sutton, architect of 750 career victories, ordered his players into the football equipment room to check out helmets and shoulder pads following an embarrassing loss to BYU. Maybe it happened two weeks later when the Cowboys went to Sutton's old stomping grounds, Arkansas, and easily earned the coach his 300th victory at OSU. Maybe it happened the following game, when Joey Graham got his first start and solidified the lineup for the rest of the season.
Perhaps it was the way each player forgot the game plan in a 21-point loss at Texas Tech, or Sutton's two-hour ''do-better'' speech when the team got back home. Or the way everything just hummed like a Bavarian automobile in the first OU game four days later. Or the 16-point comeback at Kansas State. Or the confidence-building victory at Texas. Or the stunningly efficient victory at Iowa State. All three of those wins ended long home-court winning streaks by the hosts.
Then again, maybe it was all those things that made this Cowboy club so supremely confident heading into the postseason. In all three games of the Big 12 Tournament, the opposition made a decisive second-half run that could have shaken the Cowboys' spirit. Instead, all three challenges were met with an OSU push that helped close out each game. That's the kind of grit that takes teams deep into an NCAA bracket.
Q: What can we expect from the Eagles?
A: Would you believe, Nolan Richardson meets Pete Carrill? Seriously, Eastern Washington frequently runs a full-court press defense that doesn't quite resemble Richardson's ''Forty Minutes of Hell,'' and the offense is a variation of the scheme Carrill perfected at Princeton, with an annoying (and dangerous) series of back-cuts to the basket. Those two schemes can produce a lot of layups: the Eagles shoot 48 percent from the floor.
''We like to throw different kinds of presses in there to mix it up, keep teams guessing,'' said senior guard Brendon Merritt.
''We try to do a good job of keeping the floor spaced and giving ourselves the opportunity to basket-cut when people are getting out and denying,'' said head coach Ray Giacoletti. ''One reason we use it is the spacing you have. But it's one thing to have spacing early in the 35-second clock, and it's another thing to have spacing in the last 10 seconds of that clock. I think the Princeton system, you have pretty good spacing for all 35 seconds.''
The Eagles have four seniors. Six players average 22 minutes or more, and four more can help. Senior guard Alvin Snow (6-2, 215) was the Big Sky Conference player of the year and leads the team in scoring (15.2 ppg) and rebounding (5.1 rpg). Junior forward Marc Axton (6-7, 225) averages 13.0 points and 4.7 rebounds and is a nice 3-point shooter (41 percent). Merritt (6-4, 190) scores 10.9 points per game but has averaged 13.1 in conference play since a thumb injury healed. Senior forward Josh Barnard (6-5, 205) began his career at Washington; this year he's been slowed by a sore Achilles' tendon and averages 8.8 points.
After starting 3-9, the Eagles lost their first conference game, then ticked off 11 wins in a row, lost twice in overtime, then swept the two-game conference tournament on their own floor.
Q: So who will the Cowboys face in the second round?
A: Conventional wisdom and seedings say Memphis (21-7), the No. 7 seed. The Tigers, coached by John Calipari, are one of five teams to tie for first place in the Conference USA standings (tiebreakers made them the C-USA Tournament's second seed). Calipari, of course, was the coach at Massachusetts when OSU went to East Rutherford, N.J., and eliminated Marcus Camby and the Minutemen on the way to the Final Four in 1995.
Another interesting note on Memphis: OSU's John Lucas can get a glimpse of what might have been. The Tennessee school is one of a handful Lucas considered when he decided to transfer out of Baylor, along with Georgia, Lamar, Rice, Rutgers San Diego State and UCLA.
Freshman forward Sean Banks (6-8, 205) leads the team at 18.0 ppg. Guard Antonio Burks (6-0, 200) averages 16.1 points and 5.3 assists and was the C-USA player of the year but had just six points on 2-of-11 shooting in a tournament loss to Saint Louis.
UM is a 2-point favorite to beat Southeastern Conference also-ran South Carolina (23-10), which went 8-8 in SEC play but had an impressive run to the conference tournament semifinals. But a quick look at the defensive statistics posted this season by the 10th-seeded Gamecocks – 62.8 points per game, 39.4 percent field goal shooting, 29 percent 3-point shooting, 8.9 steals per game – lets you know this team can score an upset.
Senior Mike Boynton (6-2, 180) is the point guard and a ferocious defender. Junior forward Carlos Powell (6-7, 220) averages 12.3 ppg and 6.3 rpg, and junior guard Josh Gonner (6-2, 181) scores 12.1 ppg for coach Dave Odom's ballclub.
It's strength on strength when Memphis has the ball. UM ranks 13th nationally in 3-pointers per game (8.7) and shoots 24.7 per game, but the Gamecocks' strength is perimeter defense, allowing an SEC-best .290 success rate on 3-pointers.
Neither team finished particularly strong: USC went 5-8 down the stretch, while Memphis lost three of its last four.
Q: If the Cowboys get to East Rutherford, who will they play in the Sweet Sixteen?
A: Joey Graham said his preference would be his old school, Central Florida, the 14-seed that opens Friday against No. 3 Pittsburgh in Milwaukee. The Golden Knights won a school-record 25 games this season under 11th-year coach Kirk Speraw, but most of Graham's old teammates are gone (only senior Josh Bodden remains), so he won't be too broken-hearted when the Panthers roll in the first round.
Pitt, fast on offense and physical on defense, went into the final week of the regular season on the bubble for a No. 1 seed. The Panthers went 14-0 in non-conference, then finished 13-3 and won the rugged Big East before falling to Connecticut in the tournament. Two of Pitt's four losses were in overtime.
No. 11-seed Richmond is the trendy pick to upset No. 6 Wisconsin. The Spiders are worth a look: of their 12 losses, 10 came against teams in the NCAA Tournament. They also own victories at Colorado, at Kansas and at Temple.
But the Badgers have won seven in a row, including the Big Ten Tournament last week, and will be playing two games just a bounce pass away from its Madison campus.
Pittsburgh is by far the most talented team in this pod – and perhaps the most dangerous to OSU's hopes for a Final Four trip – but the Panthers will have a tough time winning what amounts to a home game for Wisconsin.
Q: Will St. Joseph's be waiting for the Cowboys in the Elite Eight?
A: Billy Packer and Phil Martelli hope so, but the magic 8-ball says to check back later.
After stomping Liberty in round one, the No. 1-seed Hawks might have their hands full with an athletic, 3-point firing Charlotte team or an Andre Emmett-led Texas Tech club that looked on the rise in Dallas. That's an 8-9 toss-up.
Florida's late fade makes it an easy pick to lose to Manhattan – the annual 12 versus 5 upset – but the Jaspers aren't good enough to keep going.
No. 4 seed Wake Forest, one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's more physical teams, comes in on a three-game losing streak. But the Demon Deacons will pummel No. 13 Virginia Commonwealth, stomp Manhattan and outmuscle St. Joe's to get to the March 27 regional final.
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