KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP)—First the head coach was nearly killed in a traffic accident, then their leading scorer was arrested along with the coach’s son and removed from the team.
And in February, another traffic accident almost claimed the life of their point guard.
Still, the Matadors of Cal State-Northridge didn’t quit. They came together, won the Big West tournament, and made it to the NCAA tournament for only the second time in school history.
Yes, they’re huge underdogs. Seeded No. 15 in the West Regional, the Matadors (17-13) will face a much bigger and more experienced No. 2 Memphis (31-3) at 12:25 p.m. EDT Thursday in Kansas City’s Sprint Center.
But the last thing Memphis coach John Calipari expects to see in this opponent is any quit.
“It doesn’t matter what the score is with 7 or 8 minutes to go—if you think this team is going to go away, you’re out of your mind,” Calipari said. “They’re going to play, because of what they’ve been through.”
The tragic sequence of events began on July 26 when head coach Bobby Braswell’s car was slammed into by a car running a red light. His vehicle was totaled and he was seriously hurt, but back at work within a month.
In January, the Matadors’ leading scorer, Deon Tresvant, was arrested along with another player and Jeffrey Braswell, the coach’s son. They were charged in connection with an alleged robbery at an electronics store where the younger Braswell worked.
They face arraignment April 1 on felony theft and burglary charges.
Senior point guard Josh Jenkins helped fuel an 8-2 run over the next 10 games, averaging almost 12 points and six assists. But then Jenkins was involved in an accident that killed another passenger in his car, and left him hospitalized ending his college career.
Talk about overcoming adversity.
“I’ve had more people call me and say they cannot believe they lost their two leading scorers in the middle of the season and still they’re where they are,” said Calipari.
Braswell can hardly believe it himself sometimes.
“Words can’t express how proud I am,” he said. “I’m extremely blessed and extremely honored to have worked with this group. You have to remember, by the end of the season, we were playing guys that hadn’t played a lot of minutes at all, and asking guys to do things that they weren’t used to doing.”
Even at full strength, the Matadors would have their hands full with the Tigers, who have won 25 straight to ride the nation’s longest winning streak into the tournament for the second year in a row.
The Tigers lost three players from last year’s national runner-up, including freshman point guard Derrick Rose, the overall pick in the NBA draft. But along came another freshman point guard, 6-foot-6 Tyreke Evans, to step right in.
“They’re different players,” Calipari said. “But they’re very similar in their growth into this offense and how we play defensively. Both would bring different things to the table. Derrick brought an explosiveness which he has taken to the NBA.”
Starting in 32 of 34 games, Evans is averaging a team-high 16.6 points with 5.5 rebounds and almost five assists. He’s one of four Tigers averaging in double figures.
“Tyreke is more of a physically tough, long point guard who can create for his teammates,” Calipari said. “We can post him up, we can do different things.”
Cal State-Northridge has only one player averaging in double figures, 6-9 Tremaine Townsend. He and 6-8 Willie Galick are the only starters over 6-4.
Memphis does not have a starter under 6-5. Confronting the undersized Matadors along with Evans will also be 6-9 Robert Dozier and 6-6 Antonio Anderson, seniors who bear the scars and the experience of last year’s overtime loss to Kansas in the title game.
The two have tried to share what they’ve learned about the NCAA tournament with Evans.
“I just told him, `Keep playing the way you’ve been playing all year,”’ said Anderson. “I know it’s your first NCAA tournament, but the ball is still the same, the hoop is still the same. Just go out there and play.”
As for the Matadors, they’ll just keep on fighting, as they’ve fought all year long.
“We knew we needed everyone to come together to accomplish what we just accomplished,” said forward Kenny Daniels. “So I just feel like, although things happened, it made us become a better team.”
Said Braswell, “This group has more heart and more character and more toughness than I’ve seen.”