Dancing in the Dome

first_img Published on March 24, 2010 at 12:00 pm Facebook Twitter Google+ 12 Cornell (29-4)First round (Jacksonville, Fla.): Def. 5 Temple (78-65)Second round (Jacksonville, Fla.): Def. 4 Wisconsin (87-69)Johnathan Gray scanned the Cornell locker room for even the tiniest opening, searching for a place to stand quietly and absorb this moment. He settled for a nook in the corner, tucked against a side wall near the entrance to the team bathroom. There, amid a sea of bright lights and television cameras, he could finally breathe.His teammates were suddenly celebrities. Reporters who Gray knew only from TV were treating the Ivy League champions like one of college basketball’s elite programs. Surrounded by urinals and a row of shower heads, Gray, a freshman who began the season as a team manager, watched in awe. ‘Do they all know that this is Cornell?’ Gray said, laughing. ‘We never had more than maybe one camera in here after our games all season. This is unbelievable.’But it was no mistake. Twelfth-seeded Cornell has become the Cinderella story of this year’s NCAA Tournament and the primary attraction at this weekend’s East Regional at the Carrier Dome. By dominating Temple and Wisconsin in the Tournament’s first two rounds, the Big Red has established itself as a legitimate force and transcended the cute, cuddly image often held by mid-majors that reach the Sweet 16.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textToday marks Cornell’s greatest challenge, when it takes on top-seeded Kentucky, arguably the best team remaining in the Tournament (9:57 p.m., CBS). No. 11 Washington plays No. 2 West Virginia to undercard the evening’s festivities (7:27 p.m.).It’s the classic David vs. Goliath — The Big Red’s collection of unknowns against the Wildcats’ slew of All-Americans and projected NBA first-round draft picks. And Cornell has made its intentions eminently clear: It has come to Syracuse intending to win.‘I’m enough of a fan of college basketball to understand why this is so intriguing to everybody,’ Cornell head coach Steve Donahue said at Wednesday’s introductory press conference. ‘I get it. I don’t know if our guys really understand it. They believe that they’re a good enough basketball team without all the other things that go along with it to play with anybody in the country.’It seems the crowd will be on the Big Red’s side. The normally orange Dome turned red for the team’s open practice, with a large group of fans making the 60-mile trek from Ithaca to Syracuse. The Big Red took the court to rowdy applause, while Kentucky was inundated with boos from both Cornell and SU supporters.And though Cornell has never played in the Sweet 16, it is no stranger to facing tough opponents. It nearly upset then-No. 1 Kansas on the road in January, maintaining a one-point lead with just 49 seconds remaining. That experience gave the Big Red all the confidence it needs as it looks to continue shocking the country and advance to the Elite Eight.‘I think we’re a much better team than when we played Kansas,’ center Jeff Foote said. ‘I think we’ve come a long way. We’re a much more improved team.’1 Kentucky (34-2)First round (New Orleans): Def. 16 East Tennessee State (100-71)Second round (New Orleans): Def. 9 Wake Forest (90-60)John Wall trailed behind a group of teammates scurrying into the Carrier Dome tunnel as a chorus of boos came pouring down from a nearby crowd. Despite being the No. 1 seed in the East Regional, the crowd’s aggression was evident as the Kentucky players exited the court following a practice session at the Carrier Dome on Wednesday.‘Every game is like that,’ UK guard Eric Bledsoe said. ‘Every game we’ve played so far, they have something negative to say about us. But we don’t even think about it, we just keep playing.’With Cornell’s campus not far from the Dome, the Wildcats (34-2) will likely have to overcome a daunting sea of Big Red — and the hostilities of neutral fans wanting to see an upset of Northern Iowa-proportions — if it hopes to advance past Cornell (29-4) and on to the Elite Eight. During an open locker room media session, UK freshman superstar DeMarcus Cousins said he’s fully expecting the game environment to be unfriendly. And that has Cousins and Kentucky prepared for the worst. ‘That’s basically how it is,’ he said. ‘I mean, coming into this game, it’s going to be just us and Syracuse fans and Cornell fans. It’s going to be a tough game.‘But I believe the best games we’ve played have been on the road, when the crowd is against us. So I think we’ll be ready for it.’Including Bledsoe and Cousins, Kentucky’s squad has anywhere from four to six NBA first-round draft picks. For Cornell, it would be difficult to find one or two players that will get more than a second look from NBA scouts.‘They’re used to playing games on national TV, big-time spotlight,’ Cornell center Jeff Foote said. ‘John Wall has been the No. 1 overall pick in a lot of people’s minds for a while now.’As a result, Kentucky naturally gets roped into the stereotype of one-and-done prima donnas of which college basketball fans generally despise. Cornell is viewed by the general public as a team that plays the ‘right way.’ Kentucky simply has loads of NBA-caliber talent.It’s that kind of negative attention that has made UK the target of some harsh criticism this season, giving the players an ‘Us against the World’ kind of mentality in the midst of this Tournament.And in the process, Kentucky wouldn’t mind silencing those who keep reminding them that Cornell is the team with the ‘smart guys.’‘I think it’s stupid,’ Cousins said. ‘But I’m not going to let it get to me. I mean, we’re here to play basketball, it’s not a spelling bee.’2 West Virginia (29-6)First round (Buffalo): 15 Morgan State (77-50)Second round (Buffalo): 10 Missouri (68-59)A wide-eyed Joe Mazzulla took the stage to address the media Wednesday, still trying to comprehend his new role. He learned Tuesday he would see significant action running West Virginia’s offense against Washington in the Sweet 16 after regular point guard Darryl ‘Truck’ Bryant suffered a season-ending foot injury.‘It’s very difficult,’ said Mazzulla, who averages just 15 minutes per game this season. ‘I’ve never been in a Sweet 16 game before. I don’t really know what to expect.’He’ll have to learn quickly. Bryant fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot during the Mountaineers’ practice in Morgantown on Tuesday. He said Wednesday he started feeling pain during WVU’s win against Missouri on Sunday in the second round but played through it. He felt a pop in his foot within the first 30 minutes of practice two days later.The injury is a blow to West Virginia’s meticulous half-court offense. Bryant started 31 of 35 games this season, averaging 9.3 points and 3.1 assists. He served as the primary distributor to scoring threats Da’Sean Butler, Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks.‘It’s tough, actually,’ Bryant said. ‘Of course I want to play. The lights are on. It’s a big time of year. I just wanted to be a part of it.’West Virginia coach Bob Huggins did not reveal his plans to adjust for Bryant’s absence. The most probable scenario puts Mazzulla in the starting lineup, but Huggins did not rule out the possibility of using a five-forward lineup he tried briefly earlier in the season. Nevertheless, Huggins acknowledged that Mazzulla would need to play considerably more than usual for the Mountaineers to win.‘I don’t know if he can go 40, but I think he can go 35,’ Huggins said. ‘We’re still trying to figure out the best way to go.’Bryant’s injury is about the only thing that has gone wrong for the Mountaineers in the last month. West Virginia comes to Syracuse riding an eight-game winning streak and two weeks removed from winning the Big East tournament championship.But Washington, its opponent, enters the game having won nine straight, earning an automatic bid to the NCAAs by sweeping through the Pac-10 tournament. Not the best time to lose your starting point guard.‘We are definitely going to miss him,’ Ebanks said. ‘We have to pick up the psyche of the team. I think that’s why we’ve been ranked so high during the season, just because of our depth. We still have players on the team that can contribute, so everybody has to step up.’11 Washington (26-9)First round (San Jose, Calif.): Def. 6 Marquette (80-78)Second round (San Jose, Calif.): Def. 3 New Mexico (82-64)For the Washington Huskies, the doubters still exist. Recent accomplishments go unnoticed. And the skepticism remains.Ignored at nearly every turn during the final weeks of the regular season and in both of its postseason tournaments, the Huskies head into Thursday’s matchup with West Virginia with the hopes of remedying that situation.‘Not a lot of people here are really paying attention to us,’ UW guard Elston Turner said. ‘But we feel like we can make a Final Four run. And if we can do that, maybe people will start paying some attention.’Turner’s comments come just four days after the No. 11-seeded Huskies dispatched No. 3-seeded New Mexico in convincing fashion, 82-64. The win gave UW its ninth consecutive victory, dating back to a 29-point win over UCLA on Feb. 20. Yet, despite being one of the hottest teams in the nation, the Huskies have yet to feel the love. Collectively, bracket prognosticators advanced the No. 6 seed Marquette with little hesitation. On ESPN.com, 11-of-12 prognosticators picked the Huskies to fall in the first round. But UW took care of the Golden Eagles before cruising against New Mexico.‘Once we had a couple wins under our belt, we got a little confidence and we started playing a lot better,’ Huskies guard Isaiah Thomas said. ‘That was the secret.’Aside from a renewed confidence and some serious momentum, Washington has the element of surprise still in its favor. Regardless of how many times WVU says it respects the Huskies, there’s still an audience out there that is expecting to see West Virginia versus Kentucky in the next round Saturday.Having won in five consecutive single-elimination games, the season has come full circle for the Huskies. They are playing their best basketball of the season and are clicking at the right time. Now in the Sweet 16, they’re one of the few teams still completing for the ultimate prize. Despite that, they’re the team nobody is talking about in the East Regional. But that doesn’t seem to bother the guys in the UW locker room. If anything, the lack of attention has allowed them to sneak under the radar and has reinforced a desire to reach the next round. Maybe then some people will start to take notice.‘We always feel like we can beat anybody in the country and we still feel like that,’ Turner said. ‘And so far in this Tournament, that mentality has worked.’[email protected]@syr.educenter_img Commentslast_img

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