Ranking the Top 10 Stories of March Madness

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMarch 27, 2013

Ranking the Top 10 Stories of March Madness

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    March Madness is about the fascinating stories behind the players and teams involved in the event as much as it is about the action on the court.

    Sometimes the stories start before the NCAA tournament begins and are enhanced by the team's success. Sometimes the stories grow out of the tournament. Sometimes they involve unlikely success. Almost all involve personal perseverance.

    Although each person who watches the NCAA tournament has his or her favorite (which may or may not be listed here), we selected 10 such stories.

    We narrowed our countdown of the top nine stories to teams and players involved in the Sweet 16. The 10th spot was saved for two teams not playing Thursday or Friday.

10. Saint Louis/Lipscomb

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    Saint Louis and Lipscomb share the 10th spot, even though they have little in common.

    The Billikens were the top pre-tournament story because they had played so well after the death of their coach, Rick Majerus, on Dec. 1. They were just 3-3 when Majerus died, but played the rest of the season in his honor. They went 25-4 thereafter under the guidance of interim coach Jim Crews, winning the Atlantic 10 regular-season and tournament titles.

    Saint Louis was a dark-horse pick to get to the Final Four for undoubtedly many. It won its opening NCAA tournament game, but its sentimental run ended with a loss to Oregon.

    Meanwhile, Lipscomb finished ninth in the Atlantic Sun Conference, lost 20 games and did not qualify for a postseason tournament.

    So why are the Bisons here? It's not because their nickname represents incorrect usage of the English language (the plural of bison is bison, not bisons). No. it's because Lipscomb, which is located in Nashville, Tenn., went 2-0 this season against Florida Gulf Coast, the surprise team of the NCAA tournament.

    Lipscomb coach Scott Sanderson has become a celebrity by association. Media outlets such as the News-Press in Ft. Myers, Fla., are contacting him to find out how the Bisons, with an RPI ranking of 236 and a 37-point loss to South Carolina Upstate, managed to handle the team that beat Georgetown and San Diego State in March Madness.

9. Kevin Young, Kansas

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    Kevin Young's circuitous journey to the Sweet 16 as a starter and glue guy for No. 1-seeded Kansas included practicing with a women's team while attending a community college two years ago.

    His story as the quintessential hustle player started at Loyola Marymount, but he left after two productive seasons.

    Inadequate grades prevented him from transferring to a Division I school, so he went to Barton Community College to focus on academics, according to the Lawrence World-Journal. He did not play basketball in 2009-2010, acting as a volunteer assistant coach for Barton. He transferred to San Bernardino Community College in the spring, cramming in 31 hours of classes so he could graduate.

    He did not play at San Bernardino, either, but practiced with the women's team. Young credits women's coach Susan Crebbin with helping him with his shot.

    The skinny, 6'8" Young received limited playing time last season as a Kansas junior, averaging 3.4 points, 3.0 rebounds and 11.4 minutes.

    However, persistence has been his trademark, both in his basketball career and his effort on the court. 

    Young's numbers this season (7.6 points, 6.7 rebounds) do not reflect the energy he injects. Even his 17 rebounds in the two postseason games don't tell the entire story. Coach Bill Self has previously talked about Young's contributions, comparing Young to a kamikaze.

8. Seth Curry, Duke

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    Duke guard Seth Curry is a story for five reasons:

    1. He's averaging 21.5 points in the postseason and has overtaken Mason Plumlee as Duke's top scorer heading into the Sweet 16.

    2. Curry is from a family of outstanding shooters. Father Dell Curry ranks 30th all time in NBA three-point percentage at 40.19 percent. Brother Steph Curry ranks second all time at 44.67 percent and is a current NBA star. His deft shooting helped Davidson upset Georgetown and Wisconsin in 2008.

    Seth is hitting 42.6 percent of his threes this season.

    3. Seth Curry made the unusual move of going from a mid-major school to a high-prestige basketball program three years ago. Most transfers take the opposite course. Curry, who was not recruited by major programs out of high school, started at Liberty and averaged 20.2 points as a freshman. He then became only the third transfer Mike Krzyzewski has taken at Duke. 

    4. Duke and Curry are trying to rebound from last year's postseason disappointment. The No. 2-seeded Blue Devils lost their opening 2012 tournament game against No. 15 seed Lehigh, with Curry going 1-of-9 from the field.

    5. Curry's mobility, jumping ability and practice time have been severely limited this entire season by a shin ailment. Trainers told Krzyzewski in mid-September Curry might miss the whole season because of the problem, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.

    A plan was devised to give his leg plenty of time to heal between games. As a result, Curry seldom practices, allowing the pain to subside. He has missed only one game this season, and that was because of an unrelated ankle injury.

    Curry's scoring has improved late in the season, and he's averaging 19.6 points over the last five games.

7. Arsalan Kazemi, Oregon

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    Oregon's presence in the Sweet 16 despite being seeded No. 12 is part of the story. But a major aspect of the Ducks' tale is Arsalan Kazemi.

    He is the first Iranian-born player to earn a Division I basketball scholarship. It hasn't been easy since then, though. He was held for six hours of questioning when he arrived at the airport in Houston as a 17-year-old preparing to play for Rice. He has heard taunts of "terrorist" from fans.

    He left Rice last summer to transfer to Oregon for his one remaining college season. Kazemi received a waiver from the NCAA to play for the Ducks immediately. The New York Times noted that Rice suggested allegations of discrimination were involved in the waiver request, allegations Rice denied.

    Now Iranians come to see him play, while his mother watches his games half a world away at strange hours in Iran on a computer screen.

    The addition of Kazemi is a major reason Oregon is still alive in the tournament despite being picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12 by the media.

    Neither big (6'7") nor particularly strong or athletic, Kazemi has a knack for rebounding. He has 33 rebounds in the postseason, the most of any player in the tournament.

6. Victor Oladipo, Indiana

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    Indiana junior Victor Oladipo was named national player of the year by The Sporting News earlier this month. NBADraft.net and DraftExpress.com project him to be an NBA lottery pick.

    The remarkable improvement Oladipo has made to reach that level and help the Hoosiers become one of the favorites to win the national title earn him a spot on this list.

    He was a pretty good player at DeMatha High School, but neither Scout.com nor ESPN.com listed him among the nation's top 50 shooting guard prospects in 2010. He was not close to being among their top 100 high school prospects overall.

    Oladipo was less than overwhelming as a raw Indiana freshman, averaging 7.4 points and 3.7 rebounds for a team that finished last in the Big Ten in 2011.

    As a sophomore, he did not make the first team, second team or third team for all-conference and was not on this season's preseason all-conference team.

    Cody Zeller was the Hoosiers' presumed star. But Oladipo has slowly overtaken Zeller as the team's most important player. Not only is the 6'4" Oladipo averaging 13.6 points and 6.4 rebounds, but he was named the Big Ten defensive player of the year. His energy, leaping ability and hustle provide intangibles that have made Indiana a powerhouse.

    His improvement was illustrated on Sunday when he knocked down a clutch three-point shot with 15 seconds left to give Indiana a four-point lead over Temple. Oladipo made just 25 percent of his three-point attempts during his first two seasons at Indiana. He's making 43.3 percent of them this season.

5. Russ Smith, Louisville

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    Louisville guard Russ Smith has become a major March Madness story for three reasons:

    1. Smith is averaging 25.0 points in the postseason, tied with Arizona's Mark Lyons for the highest average among players in the Sweet 16. He also has 10 steals in the two games, creating turnovers from the Cardinals' pressure defense.

    2. Smith so aggravated coach Rick Pitino with his penchant for taking wild, low-percentage shots that Pitino nicknamed him "Russdiculous" a couple years ago. Pitino even named his race horse Russdiculous in his honor. 

    3. Smith very nearly left Louisville two years ago, and it was a 1-of-7 game that kept him with the Cardinals.

    The turning point came on Jan. 26, 2011, as described in an SI.com article by Luke Winn. Discouraged by his lack of playing time, Smith, then a freshman, had decided to leave the program that day. He showed up for the game that night against West Virginia only because a teammate talked him to hanging around for that contest.

    Not expecting to get into the game and certain he would leave the team afterward, Smith did not dress for the game properly. Instead of wearing his compression shorts under his uniform as usual, he wore only boxers under his basketball shorts.

    But with 17:16 left in the second half and Louisville down by nine points, a disgusted Pitino went down the bench and pointed to Smith to go in. Smith got in and ran around, making things happen.

    He was just 1-of-7 with three points, one steal and one rebound in his nine minutes of action. But it helped Louisville rally for a victory, and convinced Smith to stay.

    Smith averaged just 2.2 points and 5.6 minutes that season, but it laid the groundwork for his stardom two years later. Smith is averaging 18.4 points and 2.2 steals this season.

4. Carl Hall, Wichita State

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    Forward Carl Hall is Wichita State's best player and will be a key factor in the Shockers' game against La Salle in the Sweet 16.

    But Hall is just happy to be playing at all. He went nearly two full years without playing because of a heart condition that looked like it would end his basketball career.

    Hall first fainted on the court in 2007 during his freshman year at Middle Georgia College, as Carroll Rogers of the Atlanta Journal Constitution retells. Cardiologists said he could not play basketball anymore. Hall was 18.

    He moved home with his mother and worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. on an assembly line at Lithonia Lighting. He didn't play basketball. His grades suffered. His mother worried.

    In 2009, a physician suggested the medication Hall was on was helping. A return to basketball was possible.

    Hall decided his love of basketball was worth the risk. He became a star at Middle Georgia College and transferred to Northwest Florida State, which is where Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall saw him.

    Hall has not had great games in the NCAA tournament, averaging just 9.5 points and 3.5 rebounds. However, his size, strength and heart could be the difference against La Salle.

3. La Salle

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    There were questions whether La Salle would get into the NCAA tournament at all. The Explorers were the next-to-last at-large team to make the field. It means that La Salle would not have been in the tournament three years ago, before the field was expanded from 65 to 68 teams.

    The Explorers earned a No. 13 seeding and had to play an opening-round game to qualify. And they had to do it with an undersized team made up almost exclusively of guards. They had lost their 6'11" center, Steve Zack, for at least the first week of the NCAA tournament because of a foot injury.

    Nonetheless, La Salle is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1955, when it got to the NCAA finals in a 24-team field.

    The Explorers have arrived via Tyrone Garland's game-winning shot against Mississippi. The shot has since been dubbed the Southwest Philly Floater, because it was perfected on the playgrounds of South Philadelphia.

    The La Salle students watching the game on a big screen in Tom Gola Arena on campus stormed the court.

    The team was put together by coach John Giannini, and the star is Ramon Galloway, who has provided a prominent chapter to the La Salle story. Galloway's father is blind as a result of a 1993 shooting, but he loves coming to Ramon's games. 

    "I can tell when Ramon is making a great play, especially when he dunks," his father, Gerald, told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

    Galloway started his college career at South Carolina, but returned to his Philadelphia roots by transferring to La Salle in 2011. He's averaged 21.3 points in La Salle's three NCAA tournament victories.

2. Adreian Payne, Michigan State

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    The fact that Adreian Payne had 14 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in the victory over Memphis that got Michigan State to the Sweet 16 is merely a footnote in Payne's story.

    In kindergarten he was diagnosed as "cognitively disabled" and was schooled with other learning-disabled kids in a separate building through ninth grade, isolated from his peers.

    Richard Gates, superintendent of Jefferson County (Ohio) Schools, saw potential in Payne. He moved him into mainstream classes.

    Now, at Michigan State, Payne carries a 3.1 grade average. He was named academic All-Big Ten and received his team's Scholar-Athlete Award as a sophomore.

    Payne talks openly about his situation and the need for others like him to take advantage of resources.

    He also has befriended seven-year-old Lacey Holsworth, who is battling cancer. “She calls me her big brother and I call her my little sister," Payne told the Lansing State Journal.

    Payne is projected as a second-round NBA draft pick by DraftExpress.com and NBADraft.net.

1. Florida Gulf Coast

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    Chapters seem to be added to the Florida Gulf Coast story by the day.

    The mere fact that the 15th-seeded Eagles are the lowest-seeded team ever to reach the Sweet 16 would be enough for inclusion on our list.

    But there's much more.

    The university, which is located in Ft. Myers, Fla., did not exist until August 1997, when it first offered classes to students. Florida Gulf Coast was a Division II program until 2007-2008, when it began its transition to Division I basketball. And this was only the second year it was eligible for Division I postseason participation.

    The Eagles had lost 21 games two years ago before they hired Andy Enfield as their coach. He was known for three things at that point:

    1. He had set a Division III record for free-throw shooting percentage at Johns Hopkins.

    2. He had made a fortune by co-founding a contract management company in the health-care industry (estimated to be worth around $100 million).

    3. He had married Amanda Marcum, a former supermodel (pictured) who has appeared on the covers of Maxim, Elle and Vogue, according to The Sporting News. She is now a frequent target of TV cameras during the NCAA tournament.

    Enfield earns $157,000 a year, according to Darren Rovell of ESPN.com. Compare that to the $3.6 million made last year by the coach of the Eagles' next opponent, Florida's Billy Donovan, based on salary data compiled by USA Today. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky's John Calipari are making close to $5 million.

    The last chapter was provided by the Florida Gulf Coast players and their carefree style, as they laughed, danced and dunked their way to victories over No. 2 seed Georgetown and No. 7 seed San Diego State.

    The Eagles play with an uptempo flair, led by point guard Brett Comer, who has 24 assists and five turnovers in the two tournament games. He was overshadowed in high school by teammate Austin Rivers.

    Now, however, Comer and his FGCU teammates are the story, even though they are 0-2 this season against Lipscomb.