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Kevin Schnepf, Published March 23 2014

Schnepf: Path to Sweet 16 not easy for 12 seeds

Spokane, Wash. - What do Ryan Wittman, Bruce Pearl, Todd Lickliter, Steve Alford, Tubby Smith and Dick Hunsacker have in common?

They were all parts of mid-major college basketball teams who showed that the No. 12 seed in an NCAA tournament can reach the Sweet 16. It’s something North Dakota State was hoping to accomplish Saturday before it ran into San Diego State – which proved that a high-major team with a nationally ranked defense is usually going to beat a mid-major team with a nationally ranked offense.

“San Diego State has done that to a lot of people,” NDSU head coach Saul Phillips said Saturday, after his team was limited to its lowest point total of the season with a 63-44 loss. “We lost to a great team.”

Yes, they did.

This is a team that back on Nov. 14 lost to top-ranked Arizona by a score of only 69-60. And the Aztecs were playing without 6-foot-7 junior Dwayne Polee II, who had 15 points and six rebounds against NDSU.

This is a team that back on Nov. 29 beat Creighton, 86-80. Creighton, with the help of a

30-point performance from

All-American Doug McDermott, has been one of the few teams to score against San Diego State.

This is a team that back on Jan. 5 claimed a 61-57 at Kansas, ending the Jayhawks’ 68-game winning streak against nonconference opponents at Allen Fieldhouse. Even Kansas had trouble shooting – making only 4 of 16

3-pointers and only 17 of 57 field goals.

With all that said, NDSU simply lost to a pretty darn good basketball team. Even if they had made a few of those open 3-point looks or were able to get more playing time from foul-plagued TrayVonn Wright, the Bison just could not match up with San Diego State.

And in the history of this NCAA tournament, it all comes down to matchups. That explains why only 12 mid-major teams with a No. 12 seed have been able to advance to the Sweet 16 since 1985. Here are some No. 12 seed examples:

E Cornell of the Ivy League was able to do it in 2010, after knocking off Temple (78-63) and Wisconsin (87-69) before losing to top-seeded Kentucky (62-45). If you remember, Ryan Wittman of Eden Prairie, Minn., was a player for that team. He’s the son of Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman, who used to coach the Minnesota Timberwolves.

E Wisconsin-Milwaukee of the Horizon League was able to reach the Sweet 16 in 2005 after knocking off Alabama (83-73) and Boston College (83-75) before losing to eventual runner-up Illinois (83-75). Bruce Pearl coached that Milwaukee team.

E In 2003, Butler – another Horizon League team – reached the Sweet 16 with wins over Mississippi State (47-46) and Louisville (79-71) before falling to top-seeded Oklahoma (65-54). Todd Lickliter was the Butler coach. He later moved on to Iowa, where he coached with current Minnesota State Moorhead head coach Chad Walthall.

E In 1999, Missouri State of the Missouri Valley Conference reached the Sweet 16 with wins over Wisconsin (43-32 … yes, that’s a correct score) and Tennessee (81-51) before losing to eventual runner-up Duke (78-61). Steve Alford was the head coach of that team.

E Another Missouri Valley team, Tulsa, reached the Sweet 16 in 1994 with wins over UCLA (112-102) and Oklahoma State (82-80) before falling to eventual champions Arkansas (103-84). Tubby Smith was the head coach of that team.

E And in 1990, Ball State of the Mid-American Conference, reached the Sweet 16 with wins over Oregon State (54-53) and Louisville (62-60) before falling to eventual champions UNLV (69-67). The head coach of that team was Dick Hunsacker, who is now coaching Utah Valley – a team this year’s Bison beat 74-70 back in December.

If you noticed, there is an obvious trend that shows up with all these Cinderella runs: The deeper you go into the tournament, the tougher the competition becomes. For NDSU, San Diego State was just too tough to allow them to reach the Sweet 16 – even though Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher admitted it wasn’t an easy victory.

“We worked very hard to scout them,” Fisher said. “This is a team, and I said this before, if you play in the gym shirts and skins, they could be any team in the country. They’re good, they’re physical, they’re tough and they win.”

It just wasn’t meant to be on Saturday afternoon.

There is another trend that reveals itself with the above-mentioned Cinderella runs: The mid-major coaches usually – but not always – move on to greener pastures. But those pastures don’t always guarantee success.

Cornell head coach Steve Donahue went to Boston College the next season in 2011. He ended up being fired in 2014. Milwaukee’s Pearl went to Tennessee the next year in 2006. He eventually was ousted after being hit with NCAA violations. Just last week, he was hired as Auburn’s coach.

Butler’s Lickliter eventually went to Iowa, but is now coaching at the NAIA Marion College in Indianapolis. Tulsa’s Smith left for Georgia the next year before moving on to Kentucky, Minnesota and now Texas Tech.

Missouri State’s Alford moved on to New Mexico and has coached this year's UCLA team to the NCAA tournament.

All this suggests that Phillips could very well be moving on to a bigger job. And it also suggests that maybe – just maybe – Phillips may not go anywhere. But I wouldn’t bet on that.

This history lesson also suggests it’s not easy for a mid-major to get back to the tournament, let alone reach the Sweet 16.

Cornell has not returned since 2010. Milwaukee made its second return trip since 2005 this season. Missouri State has not returned since 1999. Tulsa has returned eight times since 1994, but had an 11-year drought before this season. Ball State has returned three times since 1990, but the last coming in 2000.

The model NDSU is shooting for is Butler, which has made six return trips since 2003.

“We’re going to build, we’re going to get better, we’re going to have better facilities, we’re going to work harder,” said Phillips, who wouldn’t guarantee a return trip to the Big Dance next year – not like Bison senior Taylor Braun guaranteeing a Summit League championship last year. “I’m not Taylor. I won’t guarantee we’ll be back here, but I think if we do what we did with this group, we have got a pretty good template to give it an effort.”

An effort to not only dance, but maybe someday reach the Sweet 16.


Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or kschnepf@forumcomm.com. Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com