DAYTON, Ohio (AP)—With the clock for their one-hour mandated practice session expiring, East Tennessee State’s players scurried to both baskets for some final free throws and 3-pointers before turning over the University of Dayton Arena floor to an Oklahoma State team waiting in the wings.
During the workout, the Buccaneers, champions of the Atlantic Sun Conference, endured some taunts and good-natured trash talk from a handful of Pittsburgh fans.
“Hey!” one fan yelled playfully. “Who’s going to take the grizzly bear?”
“Not me,” mouthed ETSU guard Jocolby Davis.
His teammates won’t be so lucky. Pitt center DeJuan Blair can be harmful to one’s health.
To make NCAA tournament history in Friday’s round and become the first No. 16 seed to topple a No. 1, the Buccaneers will have to bang inside the lane with Blair, the Panthers’ 6-foot-7, 265-pound bruiser who could easily pass as a defensive tackle for that other noted championship team from the Steel City.
Battling Blair on the boards is not an assignment for the faint-hearted.
So, who’s up for it? Hands please. Anyone?
“That would be me,” said 210-pound senior forward Greg Hamlin, who then looked at his teammates flanking him on the dais. “We’ll do it as a team, pretty much.”
While few think the small school from Johnson City, Tenn., is capable of knocking off one of the Big East’s behemoths, don’t try telling that to this group of swaggering Buccaneers (23-10), who think they just may be tough enough to shock Pitt and end a 96-game winning streak (entering this tournament) of No. 1s over No. 16s.
“It’s just a game,” said senior Courtney Pigram, who averages 17.6 points per game. “We have been playing the game for a long time. The only difference is the name on your jersey.”
The letters ETSU have scared some of college basketball’s big boys before.
Twenty years ago as a No. 16 seed in Nashville, the Buccaneers had No. 1-seeded Oklahoma on the ropes before losing 72-71 in the Southeast Regional. Two years later as a No. 10 seed, ETSU lost a three-point heartbreaker to Iowa. But in 1992, the 14th-seeded Buccaneers finally finished one off with an 87-80 win over No. 3 seed Arizona, cementing them as upset specialists.
There were two other close calls: a three-point loss as a No. 15 seed to Wake Forest in 2003 and a three-point loss as a No. 13 seed to Cincinnati.
This edition of the Buccaneers wants to write their own unforgettable story, and coach Murry Bartow feels has a bunch would just may.
“I’ve got some confident kids, some tough kids, some kids that compete very hard,” he said. “We’re not going to back away from this game, I can tell you that. We’ll come out and compete hard and see what happens.”
Suffice to say, Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon isn’t having any trouble getting his squad to take its first opponent seriously. This is hardly a gimme.
“I think it’s good that we can tell them how good a team they are and how they’ve had a history of doing some things, making a name for themselves in the NCAA tournament,” he said. “It’s our first time as a No. 1 seed. They’ve got guys. They’ve put up numbers. They have a history.”
The Panthers (28-4) do, too—and it’s not all worth bragging about.
Though recognized as an elite program, Pitt has fallen short on previous NCAA visits. Despite winning at least 25 games six times in the past seven years, Pitt has not advanced past the round of 16. The Panthers made their only Final Four appearance in 1941, when FDR was president and probably not filling out any tournament brackets.
As if he was stealing a cross-court pass, senior Sam Young anticipated a question about the Panthers possibly checking out No. 1 Louisville during their weekend in Dayton.
“No,” Young said, cutting off the reporter. “No, not at all. We did that way too many times. We’re way too mature to make a foolish mistake like that again. We’re going to take it one game at a time. We’re going to worry about the team we play tomorrow and then the team we play the next day.
“We’re going to come into this game with the mindset that we’re the 16th seed and we’ve got the chip on our shoulder.”
Pitt’s success or failure this March could hinge on Blair staying out of foul trouble. In each of the Panthers’ four losses, the most recent against West Virginia in last week’s Big East tournament, Blair has been saddled with fouls. A few quick whistles against the big man could make things interesting against any opponent because when he’s on the bench and not clogging the lane or cleaning the boards, Pitt just isn’t the same.
“We’ve talked to him about all the silly fouls, being too physical early in the game, stuff like that,” senior forward Tyrell Biggs said. “But he’s just a physical guy and it’s kind of hard to calm him down.”
Another concern for Pitt is the health of senior point guard Levance Fields, who has been slowed by a groin injury. Fields practiced for the first time in two weeks on Wednesday and said he’s ready to go.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Whenever I’m on the court, I’m 100 percent.”
He’ll need to be against the Buccaneers, who figure to test Fields’ mobility with a full-court press. ETSU forced the action during their conference tourney, and while that came against the likes of Stetson, Belmont and Jacksonville, the Buccaneers aren’t going to change their ways now.
“It won’t hurt us to throw the first punch out there,” Pigram said.
It may connect, but it will take more than one to drop the grizzly bear.