MIAMI (AP)—Like many March Madness fans winding down for the night, Arizona forward Jordan Hill was watching the final game of the first round as scores from other sites appeared at the top of the screen.
One caught him by surprise: Cleveland State 84, Wake Forest 69.
“I was in shock, to tell you the truth,” Hill said.
Keeping with school tradition, Cleveland State was the biggest bracket buster in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. At No. 13, the Vikings became this year’s lowest-seeded team to reach the second round.
They’ll play another long shot Sunday: Hill’s team from Tucson. The No. 12-seeded Wildcats (20-13), derided as an undeserving at-large entry, defied critics by beating Utah 84-71 in the first round.
“They’re playing for something,” Cleveland State coach Gary Waters said Saturday. “People are saying they don’t belong, and I think they’re trying to show the world they belong.”
Waters could say the same about his Vikings (26-10). Their only other NCAA tournament appearance was in 1986, when they upset Bob Knight and Indiana to become the first 14th-seeded team to advance.
The win over Wake Forest was another stunner, and a further sign of the Vikings’ revival. Two years ago they were 10-21, and they made this year’s tournament only by winning four games in eight days for their first Horizon League Championship. A three-point victory over Butler in the title game clinched the berth.
“They’re a very underrated team,” Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell said. “You’ve got to be careful in this tournament not to read what’s on the front of a jersey, because everyone in this tournament is good.”
But games between teams seeded 12th and 13th are rare. This will be only the seventh such matchup since the tournament field expanded to 16 seeds in 1985.
The winner earns a trip to Indianapolis and a Midwest Regional semifinal Friday against the Louisville-Siena winner.
Games at Cleveland State often draw fewer than 2,000 fans, and supporters for the first-round victory barely filled one section at Miami’s arena. But the bandwagon is growing, as it did 23 years ago, and players were inundated with greetings Saturday.
“Yeah, tons of text messages and missed phone calls just congratulating us for the victory, saying they didn’t really expect it but keep up the good work,” forward J’Nathan Bullock said.
In the wake of the win over Wake Forest, Bullock and his teammates barely cracked a smile, saying their tournament goal was more ambitious than a single victory. They shrugged at the suggestion their team is the most surprising first-round survivor.
“We know we’re going to be underdogs probably in every game from here on out,” guard Norris Cole said.
Their element of surprise is gone, however. Arizona players had an awareness of Cleveland State even before the tournament—if only because they feared getting squeezed out of the field by the Vikings.
“All we knew is that before we got into the tournament, with them beating Butler, we thought they took one of our spots,” Wildcats guard Nic Wise said. “Friday was an eye-opener—just to know that they’re a small-name school but they have big-name talent. You can’t come out soft, because they’ll come out fast and they’ll hit you hard.”
That’s what Cleveland State did against Wake Forest, using superior quickness on the perimeter to create defensive pressure en route to a 29-12 lead. The Demon Deacons never recovered.
Waters said he doubts his team can rattle Arizona the same way.
“Wake Forest was younger, and there were things that we could exploit because of their youth,” Waters said. “When I look at Arizona, this is an experienced group. They know what they’re trying to do, and I think they’re a little bit hungrier than Wake Forest was.”
The Wildcats endured tournament flops in 2007 and 2008, coach Lute Olson’s sudden retirement last fall and a stumble at the finish line this year, with five losses in six games before this week. They barely kept alive their streak of 25 consecutive NCAA tournaments, second longest behind North Carolina’s 27 in a row in 1975-2001.
But the Wildcats have rallied around three juniors—Hill, Wise and forward Chase Budinger. The trio combined for 66 of the 84 points against Utah.
“I had confidence in our team that not a lot of other people did,” Budinger said. “I knew that our team was going to be very talented this year starting with me, Nic and Jordan. I knew that us three were going to lead this team to have a good season, and that’s what we did.
“We made it to this point and were able to get our first win, all three of us, in an NCAA tournament. We’re just hoping that we can keep on going.”
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