OMAHA, Neb. (AP)—Folks around here know all about Cal State Fullerton—at least when it comes to the College World Series.
The Titans’ baseball team has made 15 trips to Omaha and won four national championships, the most recent one in 2004.
Well, it’s been a while since the Titans have played hoops on a big stage. Fullerton is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since reaching the final eight in 1978, its only previous appearance.
Given the track record of CSF’s baseball brethren, there’s no place Titans guard Frank Robinson would rather be than Omaha.
“It’s a sign of good luck,” he said. “They come here and win a lot. If we can pull out a couple wins, it will show that we own Omaha.”
Big words for a team that comes into the Midwest Regional as a No. 14 seed. The Titans (24-8) open Thursday against Big Ten regular-season and tournament champion Wisconsin (29-4).
Asked what they know about Fullerton, the basketball team, Wisconsin center Brian Butch hemmed and hawed a bit. Then Butch went to the baseball card.
“That’s about where we heard of them, from the baseball team,” he said, smiling. “Our coaches were able to get a great scouting report together for us, and I think their basketball team is really good, too, this year.”
If the Titans are looking for some karma, maybe they can get it from their bus driver. Mike Williams has been the Fullerton baseball team’s driver the past four times the Titans have reached the CWS. When he heard the basketball Titans were coming to town, he requested to drive them.
Associate athletic director Mel Franks said it was suggested that Williams take the team on a ride to Rosenblatt Stadium, a couple miles south of the Qwest Center and site of so much Titan baseball glory. The schedule wouldn’t allow it.
But senior forward Scott Cutley said he knows the baseball players are with the basketball team in spirit. Longtime baseball coach George Horton, who left for Oregon after last season, sent his congratulations this week. And the baseball players have been big supporters all year.
“The baseball team has been great for our school,” Cutley said. “They’ve come down here almost every year and done well, so they’re a great inspiration for us.”
It will take more than inspiration to beat the Badgers, who are making their 10th straight appearance in the tournament. Only seven other programs have that distinction.
Fullerton is prolific offensively, setting school records for scoring (82.6 ppg) and 3-pointers (278). Josh Akognon is averaging 19.9 points, Robinson 16.0 and Cutley 14.8.
But those numbers have been rolled up mostly against Big West competition, or worse. Against the Badgers, points are always hard-earned. Wisconsin leads the nation in scoring defense, at 53.8 points a game, and the deliberate Badgers have given up 60 points only seven times this season.
They’ve also won 23 of 25 games, with those two losses coming against Purdue.
Then there’s Wisconsin’s size advantage. The tallest player in Fullerton’s rotation is 6-foot-6—a fact that did not go unnoticed as coach Bob Burton watched the Badgers head to practice Thursday.
“I think my guys are in the locker room hiding now,” Burton said. “If I can get them out tomorrow night, maybe we can show up and play.”
Wisconsin has disappointed in the tournament since reaching a regional final in 2005. The Badgers lost by 19 points to Arizona in the first round in 2006, and last year as a No. 2 seed they were upset by UNLV in the second round.
“We hope to do better than we did last year,” Butch said. “We have a great balanced team here. That’s the nice thing about this team. It’s been there all year. Different people have stepped up in big games and helped us win. The way we’ve been playing recently, we feel we can make a pretty good run.”
The winner of this game plays either Southern California or Kansas State on Saturday.
To make it to Saturday or beyond, Burton said, is almost too much to imagine for the Titans.
An upset or two this weekend surely would make the basketball Titans as popular around campus as the school’s proud baseball program.
“If we can get a couple of wins,” Burton said, “I’ll probably be in Mozambique on a beach and won’t even make it to the next round.”