NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP)—When Austin Peay coach Dave Loos popped in a tape of the Governors’ last win in the NCAA tournament over the weekend, his players couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
No, not that the little school from the Ohio Valley Conference was upending one of the big boys, beating third-seeded Illinois on a pair of free throws with 2 seconds left. But those uniforms! The shorts the guys were wearing back in 1987 were barely legal.
“I told them, this is living proof that anything can happen in this tournament. It depends on whether you believe it can happen or not,” Loos said Thursday. “After we got over the initial shock of the difference in the way people wear their uniforms, they responded. We had a great practice that day, I know that.”
The Governors (24-10) would like nothing more than to star in their own version of “What Not to Wear” someday. But their task is even tougher than what that 1987 squad faced, with the Governors playing second-seeded Texas on Friday in the first round of the South Region.
Only four No. 15 seeds have pulled off a first-round upset since 1985— Hampton was the last to do it, in 2001—and Texas is a team many are expecting to make a deep, deep run in the tournament.
“I think they understand … there can be no letdown, mentally as well as physically,” said Texas coach Rick Barnes, whose team lost to Southern California in the second round last year. “I can only hope that they’ve learned from it, and they realize you’ve worked hard and put yourself in this position. You don’t want to waste it.”
The Longhorns (28-6) have lost just two games since the start of February— one of those a close one to Kansas in last weekend’s Big 12 tournament—and are the only team in the country that can boast of wins against three teams that finished the year in the top five.
They have three players averaging in double figures, including D.J. Augustin, one of the best point guards in the country.
“Well, I haven’t slept much lately,” Loos said when asked his impressions of Augustin. “I continually hear (Bob Knight) talk about Augustin being the toughest guard in the country and that makes you worry a little bit. He’s a terrific player.”
Austin Peay, meanwhile, is lucky to even claim mid-mid-major status. The Ohio Valley is lugging a 19-game losing streak into the NCAA tournament, and when the Governors played at Memphis earlier this year, they got blown out 104-82.
Worse, they are, to put it nicely, on the small side. They don’t start anyone taller than 6-foot-5, and they don’t even try to pretend they have someone who qualifies as a big man.
“We know what the voters say,” said Drake Reed, who leads the Governors with 14.6 points a game and is second with 5.7 rebounds. “We’re like 99-to-1, I believe. This is why we play the games. It’s March and anything—something crazy happens every year. We just hope we can be the crazy team this year.”
If they are, it will be because of their trademark defense. Austin Peay has limited six of its last seven opponents to less than 40 percent shooting, and held four of the last five to 64 points or less. And while Reed may only be 6-5, his size actually creates some mismatches and forces bigger teams out of their usual game.
But it’s not as if Texas hasn’t seen this before. Baylor and Oklahoma State are on the smallish size, too, and the Longhorns held their own against them. Plus, Reed plays an awful lot like P.J. Tucker, the burly 6-5 forward who led the Longhorns in scoring and rebounding in 2006 and was the Big 12 player of the year.
“They’ll have some quickness advantages, so we’ll just have to play our defensive roles,” Texas guard A.J. Abrams said. “I think we can play big and small. So we just have to go out there and, like I said, compete and play hard.”
Few people would have expected Texas to be this good when the year began. Though the Longhorns returned four starters, they’d lost the national player of the year, Kevin Durant, and it’s no simple feat to replace 26 points and 11 rebounds per game.
Rather than being intimidated by Durant’s absence, the Longhorns embraced the opportunity it gave everybody else. Augustin and Abrams have become one of the most formidable backcourts in the country, with opponents unable to relax against either one.
They’ve also grown defensively. While the Texas offense gets most of the attention, the Longhorns are holding opponents to 39 percent shooting overall. Over the last 14 games, that number has dipped to 37 percent.
“We want to go out and prove to ourselves that we can win without Kevin Durant,” Abrams said. “Everybody worked hard. We built up a lot of chemistry throughout the summer, and I think it’s paying off for us right now.”