One practice into a season in which Saint Mary's eventually won 28 games, captured the WCC tournament title and reached its first-ever Sweet 16, Omar Samhan was certain the Gaels weren't going to be any good.
Samhan dialed close friend and former teammate Diamon Simpson on his way home from the gym and lamented that Saint Mary's underclassmen lacked the talent to replace the senior class that had just graduated.
"I told him, 'I can't believe you left me with these guys,'" Samhan said. "We had this Australian kid Matthew Dellavedova who wouldn't cut his hair. Mickey [McConnell]'s shooting threes from half court. I was flustered. I thought we'd have a bad team. I was upset that was how I was going to leave my senior year."
That even the star center on the 2009-10 Saint Mary's team so thoroughly underestimated the Gaels exemplifies how difficult it is to identify sleeper teams each season. Contestants in office pools don't stand a chance if players themselves often have no idea if their teams are more likely to be March darlings or duds.
In an effort to determine if there are telltale signs that show a particular mid-major is capable of stringing together a few NCAA tournament wins, the Dagger interviewed seven guys who have been part of teams that did it before. Butler coach Brad Stevens, former VCU star Joey Rodriguez, Valparaiso's Bryce Drew and other prominent faces of past tournaments insisted there's no single recipe for March success, but there are a handful of ingredients that are often helpful.
1. A challenging schedule
Not long after his team ended the 2006-07 season with an opening-round NCAA tournament loss to Maryland, Davidson coach Bob McKillop gathered his players together and asked if they wanted to play a tougher schedule the following year.
"All 15 guys said, 'Yes,'" former Davidson point guard Jason Richards recalled. "We knew if we wanted to make a run, if we wanted to make history, we had to be able to play against the best teams in the nation."
The next season, Davidson opened with a four-point loss at Final Four-bound North Carolina and later suffered similar narrow losses to Duke, NC State and UCLA. Even though the Wildcats didn't upset any power-conference team they played in the regular season, Richardson said the experience of pushing those high-profile teams to the limit taught him and his teammates high-profile opponents shouldn't intimidate them.
Davidson's swagger showed in March when it upset Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin and put a scare into eventual national champion Kansas in the Elite Eight. Had Richards' 3-pointer at the buzzer fallen instead of bouncing harmlessly off the rim, Jayhawks coach Bill Self would still be looking for his first national championship.
The same scheduling formula Davidson used that season has proven effective for other smaller-conference programs such as Butler and Gonzaga.
Before the Zags evolved from little-known Pacific Northwest underdog to established national power, coach Dan Monson tested his 1998-99 team with a schedule that included Kansas, Memphis, Purdue, Washington and Washington State. The Zags won three of those games and later beat Minnesota, Stanford and Florida in the NCAA tournament to reach the Elite Eight.
"You can't be starry-eyed," said Monson, who employs a similar scheduling philosophy now at Long Beach State. "You have to be battle-tested."
Who has this ingredient this year? Long Beach State, which faced seven NCAA tournament-bound nonconference teams including Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville and Kansas State.
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2. Size does matter
When Valparaiso's Bryce Drew scored 62 points in three games including a mesmerizing buzzer-beater to upset Mississippi, the senior guard instantly became the everlasting symbol of the Crusaders' 1998 Sweet 16 run.
Lost amid all the attention Drew received, however, was the factor he to this day labels one of the biggest keys to Valparaiso's postseason success that season: Its size.
Whereas many mid-majors have undersized frontcourts with 6-foot-8 centers and 6-foot-6 power forwards, Valparaiso started 7-foot Lithuanian center Antanas Vilcinskas and 6-foot-11 Croatian import Zoran Viskovic. That duo held 6-foot-9 Ole Miss star Ansu Sesay to a season-low 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting, kept Valparaiso competitive on the glass in all three of its games and delivered timely low-post scoring.
"I definitely think you have to have size like that for a couple reasons," Drew said. "One is to help you get some easy baskets. Secondly, to rebound. A lot of times if you're undersized at the five and the four too much, you have too hard of a time rebounding and those putbacks end up hurting you when you play bigger teams."
Future professional big men on mid-major rosters typically aren't guys like Anthony Davis or Andre Drummond who leave mouths agape with their shot-blocking, dunking and athleticism. Instead, they're usually guys like Viskovic, Samhan or former Cornell center Jeff Foote who either were unwanted or unknown before college but blossomed as upperclassmen.
Foote was so thin and so gangly in high school that most Division III coaches who scouted him showed only minimal interest, but by his senior year at Cornell, he became the key player on a Sweet 16 team. In fact, the 7-footer was the tallest, most skilled big man on the floor in Cornell's opening-weekend victories over Temple and Wisconsin, averaging 14 points and seven rebounds in those games.
"Not only is he a legit 7-footer, he's a playmaker," former Cornell forward Jon Jaques said. "He passes the ball as well as most guards do, he's strong with the ball, he rebounds, he's a big body. Having a guy like that is an equalizer. That's usually the difference between BCS teams and mid-majors, so if you have that, it's a huge advantage."
Who has this ingredient this year? Wichita State, which starts improved 7-foot senior Garrett Stutz at the center position.
3. Been there, done that
Before the first NCAA tournament Saint Mary's made under coach Randy Bennett in 2008, Samhan admits the Gaels didn't have the proper mindset.
They were flying on a charter jet for the first time. They had a camera crew traveling with them. At the open practice on the eve of their opening-round matchup with Miami, they got to sign autographs for kids, a rarity for a mid-major team that plays in a pro sports market.
"We were super happy to be there," Samhan said. "I remember guys in the locker room stealing NCAA towels because we thought they were so cool. There's no shot the kids at Duke are doing that. They're not taking towels for memories or souvenirs. They're there to win."
Despite the No. 10 seed next to its name on the bracket, Saint Mary's may have had the more talented roster in that game, between Samhan, Aussie point guard Patrick Mills and future WCC player of the year Mickey McConnell. Nonetheless, Miami roared to a 78-64 victory behind 38 points from guard Jack McClinton.
"Even though we were a better team, we didn't have the right mentality," Samhan said. "Some of the guys on that team went home and were still happy to be in the tournament. But some of the younger guys, me, Mickey, Clint [Steindl], we were like, 'That's B.S., man. We could have beaten them.' That really helped us the next time we went."
The mindset Saint Mary's took into the 2010 tournament was entirely different even though the Gaels once again were a No. 10 seed. A confident, driven Saint Mary's team outclassed seventh-seeded Richmond and upended second-seeded Villanova behind the low-post dominance of Samhan, who had a total of 61 points in those two games.
"We thought we should beat Villanova that year," Samhan said. "We thought we were better player for player. And then we had a bunch of Australians that didn't know enough about college basketball to know we weren't supposed to win that game. To them, all the names were the same."
Who has this ingredient this year? Murray State, whose stars Isaiah Canaan, Jewuan Long and Ivan Aska each contributed to the 2010 team that beat Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA tournament before falling to Butler by two.
4. Deep threats
Take a look at the mid-majors who have made deep runs in recent years, and the majority each shared this characteristic: They were dangerous from behind the arc.
The five top scorers on Cornell's 2010 Sweet 16 team besides its 7-foot center shot 39 percent or better from 3-point range. Three of Davidson's best players on its 2008 Elite Eight team shot 40 percent or better from behind the arc including star Stephen Curry, who buried 43.2 percent of his threes that season. And then there's the king of the deep ball, Gonzaga's 1999 Sweet 16 team, which shot 40 percent as a team from 3-point range thanks to the feathery strokes of guys like Richie Frahm, Matt Santangelo and Ryan Floyd.
"My team at Gonzaga shot the ball incredibly well from three, and I think that's of the utmost importance," Monson said. "All these teams that made runs could all score the basketball. When kids have a swagger about them and can make shots, all of a sudden they have more energy, they defend better and they have a sense of invincibility about them."
Whereas teams from power conferences often win with size and athleticism in their frontcourts or with slashing future pros at wings, it's harder for mid-majors to land those types of players. As a result, the 3-point ball can be the great equalizer that enables mid-majors to keep it close or even topple a team with greater talent at most every position.
VCU's Final Four team that made the second most threes nationally during the 2010-11 season was an ideal example of that premise. The Rams surrounded versatile forward Jamie Skeen with an array of shooters, each of whom were capable of making opposing defenses pay for leaving them free.
"We had probably six, seven guys that could shoot and it helped us out a lot," ex-VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez said. "You couldn't key on one guy. You guard Skeen one-on-one, he was going to score. You bring a double and we had three guys on the outside that could hit an open three."
Who has this ingredient this year? Creighton, which shoots an absurd 42.5 percent as a team from 3-point range. Doug McDermott's 49.5 percent from behind the arc headlines a list of five rotation players who shoot 40 percent or higher.
5. Good fortune
Ask Brad Stevens how Butler made back-to-back national championship games in 2010 and 2011, and the Bulldogs coach lists a handful of key factors.
He cites a sturdy defense that granted few layups and an abundance of contested jumpers. He notes the ability of NBA prospects Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack to shoulder the scoring burden when necessary. And he points to the presence of forward Matt Howard, who often seemed to will Butler to victories in close games with his knack for clutch baskets or rebounds.
All those factors were indeed vital to Butler's success, but Stevens doesn't shy away from the other one that definitely played a role: Good luck. Six of Butler's 10 NCAA tournament victories the past two seasons were by four or less points, which suggests the Bulldogs played well enough to have a chance to beat some of the nation's best teams but also caught a few fortunate breaks that helped them advance.
Last year alone, they needed a Howard put-back at the buzzer to beat Old Dominion in the round of 64. Then in the round of 32, Butler upset Pittsburgh 71-70 thanks to an inexplicable foul by the Panthers' Nasir Robinson in the final second that negated the equally needless foul Mack had committed with less than two seconds to go and the Bulldogs ahead by one.
"There's a lot of luck that goes into having success in March, and I said that throughout the tournament," Stevens said. "When we played UConn last year [in the title game], it could have easily been Pittsburgh or Old Dominion and not us."
Sometimes good fortune can benefit teams not just in the form of a lucky break during a game but in the draw the selection committee grants them.
Stevens admits he's not sure his 2011 Butler team would have reached the Final Four had it drawn the same opponent the 2010 team did in the Elite Eight, an aggressive Kansas State team that thrived on forcing turnovers. And Drew says he's certain Valparaiso would have gone home after the first round for the third straight year in 1998 had the Crusaders drawn the formidable Arizona team that pummeled them 90-51 in 1996.
"We were playing in Arizona, and that Arizona team was bringing Jason Terry and Michael Dickerson — two first-round draft picks — off the bench," Drew said with a chuckle. "Those were two bad signs for us."
Who has this ingredient this year? Too soon to say for sure, but Murray State caught a lucky break from the selection committee. The Racers begin the NCAA tournament in nearby Louisville and drew an opening-round opponent, Colorado State, that is just 3-9 in road games this season.
The overwhelming lesson from speaking to mid-major heroes of the past is that there are ingredients that improve a team's chances for March success but no single formula that guarantees it.
Some teams rode a superstar and his supporting cast. Others won with more balanced scoring. Some teams had veteran tournament-savvy coaches. Others had coaches in their early 30s making their March Madness debut.
The one factor that almost every mid-major benefits from in March is that the pressure typically is squarely on the shoulders of the team from the higher-profile conference. Whereas the best mid-majors play with pressure throughout the regular season since a bad loss or two can drop them out of at-large contention, they're able to play loose in the NCAA tournament because they've already accomplished the goal of getting there.
"When they get to the tournament, it's a lot of freedom," Stevens said. "There's no pressure in their shoulders when they're practicing a couple days before. They're very relaxed, very focused. They're enjoying the experience. I don't know this because I've never lived it, but I can't imagine it's easy to walk into the tournament as Kentucky, Carolina and Duke. There's extra pressure on those types of teams."