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Losing Causes

Making NCAA tournament with sub-.500 record is one thing, winning a game is another

March 13, 2003|Robyn Norwood

His San Jose State team was 10-16 when Stan Morrison greeted a couple of sportswriters before the 1996 Big West Conference tournament in Reno.

"Only three games from playing Kentucky," Morrison told them in his jocular way.

"Major league tongue-in-cheek," he said. "They laughed."

Three games later, the most unlikely tournament champions in the Big West's history tipped off in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Kentucky, a No. 1-seeded team, led by Tony Delk and Antoine Walker, that was on its way to the national championship.

The Spartans hung with the Wildcats for a half before losing, 110-72.

San Jose State, though, is only one of the lovable losers of NCAA lore.

At the 1999 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, the brother of Mickey Clayton, Florida A&M's coach, celebrated amid a crowd of Rattler fans in the stands by waving a sign that said, "We Want Duke!"

The 12-18 Rattlers did indeed get the Blue Devils, losing to the nation's No. 1 team, 99-58.

"You know he didn't even come to the game?" Clayton said afterward. "He wished for Duke, then he watched on TV. He probably would have had a sign that said, 'That was not me with the first sign.' "

The moral of the story? Yes, UCLA, USC, Cal State Fullerton and all the other sad-sack teams starting conference tournaments with losing records, you can dream.

Fourteen teams in NCAA tournament history have made the field with losing records after winning their conference tournaments, among them

16-18 Siena last season and 14-16 North Carolina Asheville this season. (Three other losing teams have made the NCAA field by earning bids as independent or regular-season champions.)

But be forewarned, Bruins and Trojans.

Among the Fairfields and Florida Internationals and Prairie Views and Lehighs, only one team from a major conference has qualified with a losing record after running the table in a conference tournament: Missouri in 1978, at 14-15.

And take note: Of the 16 teams that have played in the NCAA tournament with losing records, only two have won a game. Bradley, then an independent, won two in 1955, and Siena won the play-in game last season between the final two teams to make the 65-team tournament.

The prospects are bleak, bleaker than Steve Lavin will tell his team as the 9-18 Bruins prepare to play a top-ranked Arizona team that has beaten them twice, by a total of 71 points.

You gotta believe.

Just not if you know the history.

Even Missouri, the one major-conference team to manage the feat, deserves an asterisk.

It was only the second season of what was then the Big Eight tournament, introduced at the urging of Missouri Coach Norm Stewart and others.

"We had said, 'What if you have an injury to a key player, then he returns and you have one of the best teams but don't have the record to make the NCAA tournament?' " Stewart recalled.

And four games into the 1977-78 season, Missouri center Stan Ray broke his wrist.

"We had [future Lakers] Larry Drew and Clay Johnson, but without that center, we weren't very effective," Stewart said. "We got him back the last couple of games.

"Then we beat Iowa State in the first round when Johnson, who was on the Lakers' championship team in '82, made a jump shot from the baseline with time running out. We beat Nebraska in a very close game, and then we beat Kansas State in the final."

With that, Missouri advanced to the NCAA tournament -- only to lose to Utah in double-overtime in the first round.

"The clock went out and we had to play with some guy reading a wristwatch. It was one of those," Stewart said.

In 1996, San Jose State had an extenuating circumstance too.

The Spartans' best player, Olivier Saint-Jean -- who later played in the NBA as Tariq Abdul-Wahad -- was a transfer from Michigan who became eligible at the semester.

After starting the season 0-5 and going 1-7 in nonconference games, the Spartans slowly got it together.

"With Olivier in the lineup, it was just an incredible difference," said Morrison, now the athletic director at UC Riverside after taking teams from three schools -- Pacific, USC and San Jose State -- to the NCAA tournament.

"We started winning and it was, 'Here we go.' "

They began the Big West tournament as the lowest-seeded team.

"We opened with Pacific. They had [Michael] Olowokandi, and I said it was going to be an absolute brawl," Morrison said. "We went after him. I had tough guys, not necessarily the best basketball players, and we won by 20 points."

The next night, San Jose State beat UC Irvine in the semifinals, advancing to the title game against Utah State.

"It was after midnight when we got back, and the next game was at noon the next day," Morrison said. "I told the coaches, 'We're not getting any sleep,' and I told the guys to go to their rooms, I'd have room service sent in the morning and they were to get maximum rest, no shoot-around.

"I remember at one point this one kid stood up and said, 'Fatigue is not a factor.' "

The game went to overtime.

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