COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)—San Diego State coach Steve Fisher calls the NCAA tournament “the greatest sports spectacle known to man.”
North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried calls it “the greatest show on Earth.”
Check back on Friday afternoon. Odds are one of them won’t be quite so entranced with the whole 68-team shindig.
Almost no one outside of the locker room and booster club expected Fisher’s Aztecs to be back in the big tournament after losing four starters from last year’s team led by Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White. That squad went to the regional semifinals before losing to eventual national-champion Connecticut.
“Before we started the season, when people asked me what are we going to be like, my stock answer was, `I’m a bit nervous,”’ Fisher said. “Then I would follow that with: `I think we have a chance to be pretty good.’ And we were.”
The Aztecs (26-7) won 18 of their first 20 games, won a share of the Mountain West regular-season title and are seeded sixth as they take on the 11th-seeded Wolfpack (22-12) on Friday afternoon at the Midwest Regional at Nationwide Arena.
Everything written about San Diego State in the preseason questioned its size (the tallest starter is 6-foot-7), its depth (the Aztecs now have just nine scholarship players) and lack of experience. It was a rebuilding year, everyone said.
The players themselves never had a doubt.
“We saw some of the bad publicity but just used it as motivation as the season started,” said Chase Tapley, averaging 15.7 points a game. “When we started rolling, we started rolling.”
Since North Carolina State is making its first NCAA appearance since 2006, it’s the Aztecs who have an experience surplus for a change. They’ve been in the big arenas and bright lights before, and welcome the challenge of being there again.
“In terms of developing a comfort level of what the routine is going to be, it’s easier to maintain focus when you’ve already been there before,” said forward Tim Shelton, a 6-7, do-everything glue guy who in one game this season drew six charging fouls. “Nothing really surprises you. You can also offer any type of advice that other guys need or want.”
The Wolfpack may have a bunch of starry-eyed newbies in terms of NCAA play, but they believe they’re just the latest in North Carolina State’s line of teams that are at their best in the biggest tournament. They embrace their past— including national championships in 1974 and 1983—and accept it as a plus they carry with them.
“Dereck Whittenburg spoke to our team prior to the ACC tournament,” Gottfried said, referring to one of the stars of that 1983 title team. “Our national championship banners are hanging in our gym. Our guys see them every day. They understand the tradition and history of N.C. State.”
It wasn’t so long ago that the Wolfpack’s season appeared to be history. They dropped four in a row—granted, three were to bullies Duke, Florida State and North Carolina—and were sinking fast. But they regrouped to close the regular season with wins against Miami and Virginia Tech, then beat Boston College and Virginia in the ACC tournament. They had the Tar Heels in deep trouble in the semifinals, leading with just a couple minutes left, before a couple of calls and shots didn’t go their way and they fell 69-67.
Then they had to wait. Sixty-seven schools came up in the brackets before the players finally heard North Carolina State’s name on Selection Sunday.
“We were the last team called,” second-leading scorer Lorenzo Brown said, shaking his head. “It’s nerve-wracking for anybody. But we just prayed and we got through at the end.”
Now let’s see how they do in the greatest show on Earth known to man.
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap .