March Madness: Small Teams Hope to Make it Big

The 65 teams playing in the NCAA Tournament will be revealed on Sunday. Already, 11 men's college basketball teams have earned a slot in the tournament. Renee Montagne talks with commentator John Feinstein about smaller schools still hoping to make the Big Dance.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Eleven teams have clinched spots in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament. The entire field of 65 teams will be unveiled on Sunday. Among the teams that have made it, there are some remarkable stories. And here to talk about some of them is commentator John Feinstein.

Good morning.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So now this is when the little guys get to shine. Of course, they're tall little guys. But where should we begin?

FEINSTEIN: Well, let's begin with the first team that made the field, Cornell, out of the Ivy League. The Ivy League, Renee, is the only conference in America that doesn't play a conference tournament. So their regular season champion qualifies for the NCAA's.

And Cornell, this year, was the first team that wasn't named Pennsylvania or Princeton to win the Ivy League since 1988. It's been 20 years since one of the other six schools won the league. Cornell won it.

And I think, even though the committee will just say, oh, Ivy League team, and make them a very low seed, if they shoot well, they don't get stage fright, they can scare a high seed in the first round.

MONTAGNE: And, John, you saw a game last night that involved a potential Cinderella and the one-time Cinderella. Tell us about that.

FEINSTEIN: Well, we all remember George Mason two years ago, don't we, when they went to the Final Four, coming from out of nowhere in the Colonial Athletic Association. And they were trying to get back in the tournament last night. They had to play William and Mary.

Now, we all know William and Mary's the second oldest college in the United States, but they've never played in the NCAA's in 103 years. And they were trying to get to the tournament for the first time ever. They came up a little bit short, lost the game. So George Mason, the Cinderella of 2006, goes back to the tournament this year.

MONTAGNE: And you mentioned Cornell, but Cornell aside, which is the most surprising team to have already made it into the field?

FEINSTEIN: Best story of the year, Renee - Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa, which hasn't played in the tournament since 1971. They were in the Final Four, actually, in 1969. Five years ago, a young coach named Keno Davis went to his dad Tom Davis, who was retired - a very distinguished coach - and said, dad, I'd really like to work for you as an assistant, when the Drake job was opened.

Tom Davis came out of retirement, took the Drake job, built the program, and then this year turned it over to his son, Keno. And he's taken them to the Missouri Valley title. They've been ranked in the top 20 all year. Wonderful story.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, the rest of the week, we will hear all about bubble teams, a nice expression.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FEINSTEIN: Bubble teams means you're sitting on the bubble. It's either going to burst and you won't get in the tournament or you will get in the tournament. It's amazing, Renee, some of the teams on that bubble this year. The two teams who played in the final last year, Florida and Ohio State - two time defending champion Florida - both bubble teams, may or may not get in on Sunday.

Kentucky, which has as much tradition as anybody, on the bubble. And Arizona, which has been in 23 straight years, is going to have to win some games in their conference tournament this week to play for a 24th straight year.

MONTAGNE: And, John, just finally, I've heard that there's one team you're hoping to see make the field, and it'll get a chance.

FEINSTEIN: Well, this - they will. Friday, American University will play Colgate in the Patriot League final. American has never been in the NCAA Tournament in its history. Just like William and Mary, they've been very close many times. They've lost by one point and two points in championship games in the last six years. They play at home, and this is their chance to be one of the selected 65 on Sunday, finally.

MONTAGNE: John, thanks very much.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: The comments of John Feinstein. He's author of Last Dance: Inside College Basketball's Final Four.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.