TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—Dolph Pulliam pulled up the sleeve of his bright blue Drake warmup jacket to show off a shiny gold watch—the one he removes from a case and slips onto his wrist for three weeks every March.
The Bulldogs’ radio analyst was one of the stars on the team that surprised college basketball by reaching the Final Four in 1969, and he’s absolutely giddy about the Missouri Valley Conference champions being back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 37 years.
“It’s almost like you’re traveling to the moon,” Pulliam said Thursday, reflecting on the plane ride from Des Moines to Tampa, where fifth-seeded Drake (28-4) will face No. 12 seed Western Kentucky (27-6) in an opening-round game of the West Region.
“You have great expectations. Something’s going on inside your stomach that’s turning over and saying: `Are we actually doing this? Are we actually going to travel to the moon? What’s going to happen after we get there?’ All the feelings that I felt, that my teammates felt in 1969, these kids feel right now.”
The journey back to college basketball’s showcase event has been filled with more disappointment than Pulliam likes to recall.
The Bulldogs reached a pinnacle when they nearly upset Lew Alcindor-led UCLA in the national semifinals 39 years ago, then regrouped to trounce North Carolina in the third-place game at Freedom Hall in Louisville.
After return trips to the tourney the following two seasons, the program plunged into obscurity following the departure of coach Maury John.
“That’s emotional for me. You see a program that was at its highest level in 1971 when my coach left,” Pulliam recalled. “People had just about lost hope that our program would ever come out of the grave. I almost lost hope myself.”
Enter veteran coach Tom Davis, who took over at Drake five years ago and built the foundation for the success the Bulldogs have enjoyed this season, the team’s first under Tom’s son, Keno.
In addition to winning the MVC regular season and conference tournament titles, Drake had a 21-game winning streak that propelled the Bulldogs into the Top 25 for the first time since the last three weeks of the 1974-75 season.
“It’s like a dream come true. It’s like a dream that you dare not to dream,” Pulliam said. “To see the hard work that these kids—unsung heroes, no-names if you will—and how hard they have worked and come together as a team is very gratifying. Regardless of what happens from here, they’ve made their mark.”
Western Kentucky, like Drake, is not a marquee name. But the Hilltoppers also have a solid basketball tradition and enter their 20th appearance in the NCAA tournament with expectations for success after winning the Sun Belt Conference tournament title last week.
“We’ve got a group that thinks they’re pretty good, and we’ve played a (tough) schedule over the last couple of years, so they’re used to playing against the best names in the country,” coach Darrin Horn said. “So I don’t think that we need to convince them that we’re an underdog, and we can win the game.”
Pulliam knows a little bit about facing long odds in the tournament. No one gave Drake much of a chance in 1969 after the Bulldogs beat Louisville in an MVC playoff game to get into what at that time was a 16-team NCAA field.
He sees some similarities with this year’s team. Despite Drake’s No. 5 seeding, skeptics wonder how the Bulldogs will hold up under the pressure of the tournament.
That’s why Pulliam pulled off his watch—the one he got for making the Final Four in ’69—at dinner Wednesday night and passed it around among the players.
He wanted them to know anything is possible.
“Is there a little bit of uncertainty? You always have that doubt,” Pulliam said. “But knowing you can rely on your teammates, that you play hard together, takes you a long way on a basketball floor. … I’m anxious to see what happens.”