YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Underdog stories make March Madness soar

March 17, 2014|By Nathan Fenno
  • Which teams will be this year's version of Lilliput?
Which teams will be this year's version of Lilliput? (Francesca D'Ottavi / For…)

They are the schools that bring the madness to March. Underdogs hefting double-digit seeds into the 68-team NCAA tournament that are capable of turning the bracket's orderly lines into chaos.

They're expected to be early-round fodder for college basketball's name-brand programs. But one routinely sheds small-school anonymity to pull down a giant and, in the space of a 40-minute basketball game, becomes known the nation over.

They waited 29 years for this chance at Mercer. That's in Macon, Ga., for those who aren't Atlantic Sun Conference aficionados.

Over at Wofford, in Spartanburg, S.C., they want you to know the name is pronounced Wah-ford, not Woe-ford.

No pronunciation guide is needed at Coastal Carolina, where the veteran coach could barely keep his composure after his band of upstarts from Conway, S.C., qualified for their chance to break up the brackets.

These aren't the schools that see college basketball's ultimate stage as a birthright. Instead, their journeys to the cusp of madness have evoked tears, awe, even bliss.

Here are five of their stories:


Not so long ago, Wofford Coach Mike Young had to spell out his school's name during calls to high school guidance counselors seeking academic information on recruits.

Wofford has a tick less than 1,600 students in a town better known as the headquarters of Denny's restaurants.

Three NCAA tournament appearances since 2010 — the latest secured last week by winning the Southern Conference title — brought something Young never expected: some name recognition.

"In the Midwest, we can go to Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota," the coach said. "We're like a household name out there."

That wasn't always the case in Young's 25 years at the school, the last 12 as head coach.

"No," he said, drawing out the word. "No. Absolutely not."

At Wofford, players from Colorado, Tennessee and seven other states occupy a roster that rebounded from a 7-10 start and has won 13 of 15 heading into its NCAA Midwest Regional opener against second-seeded Michigan (25-8) on Thursday at Milwaukee. Young still isn't certain what caused the turnaround — Wofford (20-12) has lost twice since Jan. 18 — but he's not asking too many questions.

"Without getting too hokey," he said, "to see a team like this battle and grind and struggle and then to see the lights come on and see them successful and continue to get better and endure, that's the ultimate to me."

Along with having a name people recognize.


A strange thing happened to Cliff Ellis in the minutes after Coastal Carolina earned an NCAA tournament berth with last week's victory in the Big South tournament.

Emotion welled up in the coach and, for a moment, the past seemed to come alive.

"It was a flashback," Ellis said. "It was an out-of-body experience."

He thought of the three other schools — Auburn, Clemson and South Alabama — he has led to the NCAA tournament. He thought of players he coached, including Elden Campbell and Horace Grant. He thought about meeting John Wooden for the first time at a Florida coaching clinic in the 1970s. He thought about his career, which started when he was an assistant coach at Ruckel Middle School in Niceville, Fla.

"It was like CinemaScope," Ellis said. "It was like a reel running fast. I couldn't help but think this was for them."

He meant all the men who played for the 68-year-old coach over a career that includes 665 Division I victories. The years of effort seemed to coalesce in this Coastal Carolina team, which will make the school's first NCAA appearance in 21 years.

Ellis had expected another rebuilding year.

"A lot of people like to go out and play golf," said Ellis, whose Chanticleers (21-12) are seeded 16th in the East and open against top-seeded Virginia (28-6) on Friday at Raleigh, N.C. "I like to teach kids to play basketball."

So, the coach found himself trying to hold his emotions together as he looked into a television camera last week after his team defeated Winthrop.

Ellis knows his career is winding down. That only added to the moment's intensity.

"I don't have 10, 15, 20 years left," Ellis said. "When you're on a short string, you know that it's something special."


Before Mount St. Mary's faced Brigham Young this season, Jamion Christian didn't have any problem picking his role on the scout team offense during practice.

The coach wanted to be BYU scoring machine Tyler Haws. "So I could get a lot of shots up," Christian said.

Assigning himself whatever role he wants on the scout team — and playing it out during scrimmages — is one of the advantages of being the fifth-youngest coach in Division I . Christian is 31.

The hands-on approach Christian has taken in his second season leading the Emmitsburg, Md., school resulted in a Northeast Conference tournament title. The Mountaineers (16-16) play Tuesday against Albany (18-14) in an NCAA South play-in game at Dayton, Ohio.

Los Angeles Times Articles