It's Davidson, Not Duke, with Hoop Dreams Intact

North Carolina is filled with perennial college basketball powerhouses. And then there's tiny Davidson College, known more in the state for its academics than its sports prowess. But this year it's Davidson making its mark in the tournament, outlasting even big-name schools like Duke.

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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Tonight in Detroit, the men's basketball team from Davidson College, a small North Carolina school best known for its academics, will take on the University of Wisconsin. An improbable run in the NCAA tournament has put Davidson front and center in the sports world, and it's understandably huge news on the campus of 1,700 students.

School trustees are even paying to bus students to the game, giving them each a ticket and paying for hotel rooms.

From member station WFAE in Charlotte, Scott Graf reports.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

SCOTT GRAF: In North Carolina, college basketball fans still cheering this late in March is nothing new. The state is, after all, home to some of the best basketball schools in the country. But these aren't Duke or North Carolina fans. They're in tiny Davidson north of Charlotte. They welcomed back the Wildcats to the picturesque Presbyterian campus Sunday night, just hours after Davidson advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Since then, the Wildcats have spent the week on the pages of national newspapers and on ESPN sports shows.

Unidentified Man #1: It's because of how good I think Davidson is. They've got the guy in Curry(ph) that's been the best player in this tournament so far…

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

GRAF: Tune in tonight and you'll see players from places like Quebec, France and Nigeria. Davidson's athletic director Jim Murphy says some of them don't really look like big-time basketball players.

Mr. JIM MURPHY (Director of Athletics, Davidson College): Our athletes blend right in. They go to class. They graduate. They're blue-chip people. And they're not here simply because we offer them an opportunity to participate in a divisional and athletic program.

GRAF: Murphy has a tough job when you consider the school will only accept about 10 percent of this year's freshman applications. Fielding 21 teams at a school consistently found in the top 10 of college rankings comes with some challenges.

Mr. MURPHY: Once we decide who we want to recruit athletically, we have to realize that almost every other school in the country is interested in those same athletes because of their academic profile.

Unidentified Woman: Do you remember the B minus L, L minus that times of hundred - oh, there it is, there it is.

GRAF: Most days, junior Mercedes Robinson goes over Xs and Os as a member of the women's basketball team. But today, she's at the student union, drawing Cs and Hs for her organic chemistry assignment.

Ms. MERCEDES ROBINSON (Member, Davidson Women's Basketball Team): I think we all pride ourselves on the fact that we're able to go to a difficult school, yet engage in a number of activities, whether it's, you know, being club presidents or just community service is big here or just doing athletics.

GRAF: Since a quarter of Davidson student body is made up of athletes like Robinson, they're a big part of campus life.

Joe Pearlman(ph), a North Carolina judge and '79 Davidson graduate, stopped in campus this week to pick up a T-shirt.

Mr. JOE PEARLMAN (Judge, North Carolina): Players are visible. They represent the school. You're proud of them for being such great people, and knowing that they do have to go to class.

GRAF: And watching students who can excel in both the classroom and on the court is at the heart of what makes the Wildcats tournament run so special, and people like Pearlman so proud.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Graf in Charlotte.

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