Cinderella Stories of the NCAA 'Sweet 16'

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The NCAA men's basketball tournament has narrowed from 65 teams down to 16. Bill Simmons, sports writer for ESPN.com, talks about the upsets, the Cinderella stories, and which teams to watch as the tournament plays out.

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

NEAL CONAN, host:

As always, the NCAA men's basketball tournament has much of the country riveted to the television four days a week as cries of joy and anguish erupt every couple of hours as grown men and women furiously cheer schools that many of them never heard of before.

We are knee deep in March Madness. The field of 65 has been wheedled to 16. As usual, some of the mighty have fallen: Duke, Georgetown, and a couple of Cinderellas are still dancing.

Call and tell us about the surprises, outrages and Schadenfreude that's afflicted your bracket in the office pool. Our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Bill Simmons writes for ESPN.com and ESPN the magazine. He joins us from his home in Los Angeles.

Mr. BILL SIMMONS (Writer, ESPN.com): Oh, a pleasure to be here. Thanks.

CONAN: And looking at your bracket, you're not doing any better than I am.

Mr. SIMMONS: No. No, and it's funny because I took chances because I thought this would actually be kind of a wild tournament. And I guess you could call it wild, although all of the number one seeds are still alive. But it's just so hard to get this right. I mean, it - you know, there's a deal of joke. They have to be an office assistant, or somebody's grandmother to win an office pool. And I think that's definitely the case this year.

CONAN: Only people who pick by favorite color.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah, or like, you know, say you went to Davidson and you had them go into the Sweet 16. Actually, that was the only one I got right, but that's the kind of stuff that needs to happen. And that's, I think, a lot of people at Duke, because it seems like it was a fairly easy region for them. So I think that screwed up some people. But the fact that there are, you know, we do this tournament challenge in ESPN.com and I think we had, like, 3.65 million people filled out a bracket.

Only two of them had their Sweet 16 left, so that goes to tell you like how impossible this is.

CONAN: It's just insane. And, you know, as you say, knowledge, experience, logic - none of those help.

Mr. SIMMONS: No. I think that helps when you get to the final four. You know, I watched UCLA a lot this year and I still think that they're going to win the title. And I don't think that's something you could just pull out of a hat, you know, unless, you know, you like them as a kid or your son went there or whatever. But I, you know, I still think there's something besides for actually watching the games. But with that said, they were down 10 in round two and really could have lost that game and a couple of things go on Texas A&M's way.

So, yeah, I think the real story here is that when it's one game, winner takes all, anything can happen.

CONAN: Had a couple of things gone more of Texas A&M's way, that guy was mugged underneath the basket.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMMONS: That's true.

CONAN: You sold twice on his last shot.

Mr. SIMMONS: You know, here in L.A., everybody says that was a great call.

CONAN: Oh, yeah.

Mr. SIMMONS: That sure had they're saying that across the (unintelligible). Yeah, UCLA has - that's like the fourth or fifth game they've won this season where they've gotten, like, an incredibly shady call.

CONAN: Like the shot from behind the back board.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yes. And I think in the last time they played, I think it was Stanford before the tournament. You know, they had this ridiculous charge, not-charge (unintelligible) and ended up pushing the game in overtime. But, yeah, everyone in L.A. is looking past that stuff there.

CONAN: Now, you call them a MacGyver team. What do you mean by that?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, I thought you saw it on Saturday. They're one of those teams, you know, the textbook-kind-of NCAA team that does won the tournament. It's a team that can shoot a lot of threes, that has, you know, the one penetrator who can get in the pane, create shots for everybody. They're not really in that category, like, they don't really shoot threes that well, and they get a lot of like ugly baskets, a lot of like loose balls, a lot of - I wrote in the column they get a lot of balls that would like bounce up somebody's face and go right to somebody for a lay-up.

They're just - they're very lucky and they're very resilient, and they have a habit of falling behind in these games and then somehow rallying back and winning. And that's one of the reasons I picked a no-winner.

CONAN: Yet, there are a bunch of teams still in the tournament like that, Wisconsin for one.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah. The interesting thing about the teams that are left are a lot of them have different identities, like Wisconsin, very good offensive team. They went ugly. They win these low-scoring games. They're very physical. And they're going against Davidson who has really emerged as, I think, America's darling because they have - they kind of (unintelligible), like they had this guy, Stephen Curry, who is their star guy and he's doing the Jimmy (unintelligible) routine.

The rest of the team is like Hickory High, and now they're going against the big bad kids from Wisconsin. And he's one of those guys that, you know, if he gets hot in any game, they're going to lose. So that's probably my favorite match up of the Sweet 16 actually.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers on the line. Our guest is Bill Simmons, ESPN sports guy, with us from his home in Los Angeles. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to bemoan your bracket or tout your picks thus far. E-mail us: talk@npr.org.

And let's begin with Noah(ph). Noah with us from Tucson, Arizona.

NOAH (Caller): Hi. How is it going?

CONAN: All right.

NOAH: Simmons, Mr. Conan, I'm a big fan of both of you.

CONAN: Oh, well, that's nice.

Mr. SIMMONS: Thank you.

NOAH: You know, I'm actually an Arizona fan. I do watch West Virginia lose, but my bracket was most importantly destroyed by picking this superstar basically over Wisconsin.

CONAN: And Kansas State, yeah.

NOAH: Yeah, which I think is the standard mistake in every bracket - as you pick the one flashy guy over the team of big, strong and corn-fed white boys.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah, I actually did that. I had USC going in the final four because I've been watching O.J. Mayo for the last month then I just became convinced that this guy was becoming a real superstar and was going to use this tournament as a platform to kind of announce, like, hey, I have arrived. I maybe got that at one point.

CONAN: O.J. Mayo, the freshman guard at USC, yeah.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah.

CONAN: And they got beaten by how much?

Mr. SIMMONS: Double figures. I forget the final score, but they were never really in the game. And ironically, they lost to the guy who's probably going to be the number one pick in the draft, Michael Beasley. And then he came out the next game and they got killed by Wisconsin.

NOAH: Thank you very much, gentlemen.

CONAN: Okay. Noah, thanks very much. Let's see if we can get - well, here's an e-mail by the way. This from Elizabeth. I got most excited about watching Villanova played Siena and Western Kentucky versus San Diego - the battle of the underdogs. It's too bad they now have to go up against K.U. and UCLA next. But Sweet 16 - way to go kids.

And it's not just Western Kentucky and well, Siena did not last long, but nevertheless, there are a couple of real surprises in the final 16. That's got - seems to be every year.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah. Yeah, I think this is pretty much fit the formula for the most part. You had Thursday's dunk. Thursday is just jinx. I think - my theory is that everybody gets so excited for the tournament that on Thursday, yeah, it's almost like a national holiday, and the games just haven't been good on Thursday for like seven years, but Friday it was good.

CONAN: All the favorites won.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah. I would just say there wasn't really a memorable game other than Duke almost lost to Belmont. But on Friday we had some classics. We, you know, we had an overtime game. We had a buzzer beater. And that was more of what we're used to at the tournament. And then in - this weekend, we had a couple of underdogs who won. So, yeah, I think it's been pretty good so far.

CONAN: Let's get Len(ph) on the line. Len with us from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

LEN (Caller): Yes, back in the mid late '60s, the Drake Bulldogs. Drake University out of De Moines, Iowa, was the Cinderella team. They went to the final four. I think they lost to UCLA and I think it was Lew Alcindor said it was the - there was toughest team they'd played all year even though they ended up for third rather than second. Wonder if any other Cinderella teams have made it that far?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, a couple of years ago, we had George Mason made it to final four. I think that was the most famous recent example. And I think the way this particular college basketball season was going, it seemed like everybody thought six or seven teams could win, but there were so many good teams in the mid-Majors that were thinking maybe this is the year one of these teams kind of speaks in. And you could see it with Davidson because they fit the formula. They have the star player who said before and they kind of, you know, the Cinderella thing going, they're just not going to find some people, so maybe that'll be the team.

CONAN: And they've learned how to, you know, take a 16-point - let the other team take a 17-point lead and sneak up on them in the second half.

Mr. SIMMONS: Right. And they also - another thing that they said is they have -the parent that the cameras love showing in the stands. In this case, Stephen Curry's dad was Dell Curry, who's a great shooter in the NBA. And his mom also was very attractive. So the cameras didn't, like, know which one to show out of those two.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMMONS: So they do fit a lot of the formula.

CONAN: Well, you mentioned George Mason that went to the final four. Of course, Bill Bradley's team at Princeton went to the final four too. I don't remember if that was as much of an upset as George Mason, though.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah, I think I remember that they were actually highly regarded, which is hard to believe now, because I went to the Cornell-Stanford game because that was in Anaheim. And Stanford won by about 120 points.

And the highlight of the game was Cornell's cheerleaders, they tried to do a pyramid, and it almost - it was actually scary for a second. Then, you were like rooting for them and pull off the pyramid, and it was like the cheerleaders had been assembled like two days before. So that's what I'm going to remember from my Anaheim experience.

CONAN: Len, thanks very much for the call.

LEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go now to - this is John(ph). And John with us from De Moines, Iowa.

JOHN (Caller): Yeah. We're very proud of our coach, Keno Davis, and the entire Drake team, they lost at the last second buzzer buster to Western Kentucky.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yup.

JOHN: So far, that was the most exciting game I've seen of the tournament, although we will be back. And I'll leave it at that.

CONAN: Determination there, John.

JOHN: You bet. Well, hey, they came from last place in the MO-Valley or way down in the MO-Valley up to winning the regular season and the tournament and then, boom, got lost in the first round there. That just was terrible. You could hear the collective sigh all through De Moines, Iowa, when that happened, I'm telling you.

Mr. SIMMONS: Broke your heart.

JOHN: And for me, because I had my Sweet 16. Pardon? You could answer the (unintelligible) for me because I had them on my Sweet 16.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah. Well, one point, you know, one point, one way or the other, and that's the way it goes in the tournament.

JOHN: Well, I think that was by far the toughest loss that anybody had in the first four days. I know it's probably the most exciting game. I think the most sympathy is greatly appreciated. Thank you. The most traumatic game, though, I think was the UCLA-Texas A&M game on Saturday because that was just felt like a big game.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah.

JOHN: And Texas A&M…

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, there's a lot of…

JOHN: …really well.

Mr. SIMMONS: They're all big at the tournament, let me tell you.

JOHN: And…

CONAN: John?

JOHN: …you just - you sit there and you do say, go, go, go. And half of them do and half of them don't.

CONAN: John, thanks very much.

JOHN: You bet you.

CONAN: Better luck next time.

JOHN: Bye.

CONAN: We're talking with Bill Simmons of ESPN. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go now to Keith(ph), and Keith calling us from Kentucky.

KEITH (Caller): Hi, good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon, Keith.

KEITH: Yes. I was just calling to comment how in grading our brackets here locally at home with my four brother-in-laws and my mother-in-law, and I felt pretty confident that I had picked - on the left side of the bracket, I'd picked each of the eight winners with the exception of I had Winthrop beating Notre Dame, which obviously didn't come to fruition. But even with picking this Siena win in the Villanova and Villanova over Siena, including Davidson over Georgetown.

Now, regrettably, you go to the right side and I think I have two teams on the right side because the Yukons, the Duke, Marquettte didn't prevail. And I look and I'm grading and my mother-in-law - I think she only has one miss on the right side.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHN: And she is an NCC fan, so I think that's where the West Virginia pick over Duke came into play for her. But it just amazed me that I felt so confident in grading my left side. And then when I got to the right side and being graded, my mother-in-law, iy really didn't make me feel that smart.

CONAN: Yeah, and it makes for such interesting conversation of the next family get-together, doesn't it?

JOHN: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: They never let you forget.

JOHN: Enjoy the show. Thanks so much.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can go now to Mike(ph). And Mike's with us from Farmington in - is that New Mexico?

MIKE (Caller): Yes, sir. I'm out in Farmington, New Mexico, but I am in the loam of WKU.

CONAN: Aha. Western Kentucky.

MIKE: I tell you, the thing I think that is so doggone funny is after Western had beaten Drake. Digger Phelps and the three wise men over at ESPN said, oh, bring it on home, San Diego. WKU doesn't have a chance. And, you know, after Western beat them good and proper, when they had all the updates on ESPN after the games that day, all they did was just show a board with the score and they didn't say deadly(ph).

CONAN: That is - Bill Simmons, the word that gets overused I think more often than any other at tournament time - and I guess maybe in sports is respect, as in we don't get any.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah, and that's become one of the themes of sports in general. I think - I've actually started factoring that into my predictions because it seems like the team that doesn't get enough respect, you know, it's almost you would put that in the pro category - if you're in the pro kind of thing because they love rallying around that. And it's, you know, you saw with the Giants at the Super Bowl and you see it basically all the time now. Now, I even think Barack Obama - he's become the first politician who's been playing that. Nobody believed in his card.

CONAN: John McCain has the same card. Yeah.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah, it's true. True.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. SIMMONS: But it's definitely something that you see all the time. Now, if you're looking at the teams that are last, I guess you'd have to look at some of those lower seeds to do the nobody-respected-us card. But maybe somebody like Washington State would be a good one.

CONAN: Let's get J.R.(ph) on us. J.R. is with us from Chillicothe(ph), did I get that right?

J.R. (Caller): Chillicothe.

CONAN: Chillicothe in Ohio.

J.R.: Yeah. I was going to call in as someone who was a former player. I played college ball and then became a sportswriter for some time. And now, in my other job since, I've always been expected to be the most intelligent and going to pick the perfect bracket. And I seem like to always finish, like, fourth or fifth from last in my pool(ph). Everyone likes to make fun of me and tell me, oh, you get all like - it's like there's no reason to have experience with basketball when you're picking this bracket.

Mr. SIMMONS: No. The thing that you're better of just taking on the number one seeds to the final four. It's probably the safest and just pick all the favorites to win each round. You'll probably do better than three-fourths of the people who're playing pool(ph).

J.R.: I do like to pick that - I did pick Davidson to beat Georgetown. I had that exact game and I actually picked that game exactly - Davidson to win. So that's where I feel like, well, I've proven my merit right there with that one, big shot.

CONAN: All right. There's a bunch of choking dogs in your bracket, too, I bet.

J.R.: Oh, there's plenty. Trust me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah. I only had nine of the final 16 teams, but I did add Davidson in the Sweet 16. So that's my moral victory on my bracket.

J.R.: We were absolutely experts right now.

CONAN: J.R. and Bill, you're both experts because at the end of every other week, you get a check for doing this.

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah, that's true.

J.R.: Oh, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMMONS: That's true. I think it's debatable whether I'm an expert. I think most people - after seeing my picks over the last years - would call me an entertainer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: J.R., thanks very much for the call.

J.R.: No problem.

CONAN: And Bill Simmons, we do have a copy of your - before anybody was eliminated, your bracket as listed. And you had that MacGyver team, UCLA, going all the way and presumably using a, you know, a pen knife to win the final game and some fixing the clock there…

Mr. SIMMONS: Right.

CONAN: …to get an extra three seconds for a shot. Are you sticking with that?

Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah. I think everyone of these teams that ends up winning has one scare, either (unintelligible) early on or somewhere in the middle. And I think, hopefully, that was their scare. The one thing I'm not sticking with that - I had them beating Tennessee. And from what I saw of Tennessee those first two games, I just don't - I don't think they have the (unintelligible) and regard to really win six straight games; like they barely, barely won yesterday and probably shouldn't have won. So I see somebody else coming out of that side. I'm just not sure who yet.

CONAN: And in the previous game, you had them beating Duke, and I guess that isn't happening either.

Mr. SIMMONS: No. No. And Duke was probably the biggest failure of this tournament. Yeah, I mean, I guess you could say USC, you know (unintelligible).

CONAN: Georgetown, too. Anyway, Bill, good luck to you.

Mr. SIMMONS: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Bill Simmons, a lead columnist for ESPN.com and ESPN the magazine, with us today from his home in Los Angeles.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. The tournament resumes on Thursday. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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NCAA Men's Tourney: Sweet Comeback for Davidson

The NCAA men's basketball tournament is down to the "Sweet 16" — from 65 teams at the start. The first weekend saw powers like Duke, Georgetown, Connecticut and Kentucky fail to advance — while schools like Davidson and Western Kentucky are still playing. Other non-powers like San Diego and Siena pulled stunning first-round upsets.

Commentator John Feinstein says the best story among the 16 teams still playing is Davidson, which was a 10th seed — meaning it wasn't supposed to win one game, let alone two. The southern North Carolina school last won an NCAA tournament game in 1969.

On Sunday, the team came back from 17 points down in the second half against Georgetown, the second seed in its region. Stephen Curry, whose dad played in the NBA, led Davidson and "did not miss a shot down the stretch under pressure," Feinstein says. "It's one of the more remarkable comebacks I've seen in this tournament."

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