Seniors dreaming of first (and last) Dance
The national title game is still three months away.
But just making the NCAAs, hearing your name called on Selection Sunday, is at the forefront of so many players' minds -- even in early January.
Actually, the obsession with the Big Dance started long before that. For players at programs like North Carolina or Duke or Kansas, it has become so commonplace it may be hard to truly appreciate an appearance in the tournament.
But for countless players, making the field isn't something they take for granted. For many of the fourth- and fifth-year seniors on teams now in position to get a bid for the first time in their careers, being this close is almost too hard to bear.
Take UMass' Gary Forbes. He's a fifth-year senior. He started out at Virginia in 2003 when the Cavs were struggling under Pete Gillen. The Brooklyn native transferred to UMass after his sophomore season, and the Minutemen faded down the stretch in his first season there.
Forbes has another obstacle: diabetes. According to Gillen, when Forbes was first diagnosed when the freshman arrived at Virginia, he wasn't a good diabetic. He wasn't eating properly and didn't take care of his body. When he got to UMass, according to coach Travis Ford, he still wasn't managing his illness well enough. Forbes agreed, saying he didn't take care of himself because he didn't understand the disease.
Last season, he admits he had a disappointing campaign. He wasn't a leader, and he was a bit lost on a team that was led by big men.
But Forbes is slowing developing an understanding of his diabetes. And his improvement has showed on the court.
This season has been a surprise so far for the Minutemen with wins at Syracuse and Boston College and at home against Houston. Forbes is leading the Minutemen (11-3), who start Atlantic 10 play on Wednesday at home against Saint Joe's. After spending last summer playing for his native Panama in the FIBA Americas, he is averaging 20.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists.
"He has been much more vocal, it would mean so much to him to be in the NCAAs," teammate Chris Lowe said.
"It's my fifth year in college, and I've never played in the NCAA Tournament," Forbes said. "I want to be remembered as a winner here. I want people to think of Gary Forbes at UMass as a winner."
Said Ford, "He needs to experience it."
Here are some other fourth- and fifth-year players in position to make their first Dance, and here are their thoughts about making the field 10 weeks from now.
• Aleks Maric, Nebraska
Maric has slugged his way through three-plus seasons with the Cornhuskers and has been through one coaching change, when Barry Collier was replaced by Doc Sadler. A native of Australia, Maric considered staying home and leaving the program after Sadler took over last season. But he came back, hoping to make the field of 65.
Nebraska is 11-2 with wins over Oregon and Arizona State. The Huskers are in the conversation heading into Big 12 play.
"I keep hearing from friends who have been there," said Maric, who leads the team with 16.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. "It's a great experience. Something you don't get in your lifetime. I want that. I want to get there. I've got a hunger for it. I want to do it my last year. Now that we're going into conference play, I know we have a chance."
• Isaiah Swann, Florida State
Swann, like teammate Jason Rich, has been on the doorstep of a bid for the past two years. And each time, the Seminoles were either snubbed or fell flat, depending on your opinion.
Florida State (12-4) already grabbed a road win at Georgia Tech and is off to a 1-0 start in the ACC. They are right there, yet again, to take care of business and get a bid. But Swann is well-versed in getting too excited about a bid too soon.
Al Thornton never made the NCAA Tournament with the Seminoles, and after his last collegiate game -- a loss to Mississippi State in last season's NIT -- he challenged his teammates. "[He said,] 'Man, you've got to do it next year. Just do it for me,'" Swann said. "If we do it, I told him, 'I'm going to give you my ring.' He damn sure deserves it. We all want to do it, but we didn't know how."
What really irks Swann is how the Seminoles have fallen short of earning bids in previous seasons.
"My whole career, we've lost 24 games by one possession, that's heartbreak after heartbreak," Swann said. "It's a mind game for us. We get to the point where no matter who it is we play, we have to play as hard as we can. We still haven't fully bought into what's going on. Once we do that, we'll be tough."
So what will it mean to Swann and the Seminoles if they can finally get a bid?
"For two years we've had our hearts broken," said Swann, who is averaging 12.4 points. "We haven't experienced it yet. We want it so bad. We're trying our hardest to get there. This is what you dream of in college basketball: to get to the NCAA Tournament."
• Levi Dyer, Illinois State
Dyer had no clue his Redbirds would be in this position: 11-3, 3-0 in the Missouri Valley and looking like a potential NCAA team.
Dyer wasn't physically ready to play when Illinois State coach Porter Moser recruited him. But never stopped working -- on his game or his body. He played in just nine games as a freshman, but he started 18 of the team's last 19 games last season. Dyer is now the team's second-leading scorer (11 points per game) and leading 3-point shooter (39-of-78).
"It's been long, I've paid my dues watching other guys play," Dyer said. "Whenever I watch Selection Sunday, I see Bradley or Wichita State get there a couple of years ago and it made me mad, knowing it could be us. I've heard from a couple of transfers what it's like, the feeling, and it's supposed to be amazing."
• Mark McAndrew, Brown
Finally, for the first time in 20 years, Penn and Princeton's lock on the Ivy is fading. Yes, Brown, Cornell maybe even Harvard may actually win the Ivy. So for the first time in McAndrew's career, he has a shot to get to the NCAA Tournament.
"This is my last chance to go to the NCAA Tournament, and it's the reason why I play college basketball," McAndrew said. "It's been our goal at Brown to win the Ivy League and go to the NCAA Tournament every year, but you find out quickly it is not that easy."
In Year 2 of the Craig Robinson era, the Bears -- thanks in large part to McAndrew's 15.5 points per game -- are a legitimate contender for the Ivy title with an 8-5 record entering league play.
The transition from Glen Miller to Robinson, and the uncertainty that first surrounded that change, makes McAndrew appreciate this run to the Dance even more now as a senior.
"Having watched the first three NCAA Tournaments on TV and knowing you have one more chance, just makes you more hungry," McAndrew said. "Seeing Brown University's name on the Selection Sunday show would be the culmination of all the hard work finally paying off."
• Drew Shubik, Sacred Heart
Sacred Heart lost a heartbreaking game to Central Connecticut in the Northeast Conference tournament title game last March. Coach Dave Bike had been at the program for nearly three decades and was seemingly inches away from getting to the Dance.
So for the Pioneers, who feel they are close again this season with a 6-9 overall record but 3-1 mark in the NEC, there is a sense that they can't let this opportunity slip away again.
"If we could get to the NCAA Tournament this year, nobody would deserve it more than [Bike]," said Shubik, who's averaging 10.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists. "It would be a dream come true if we got to the Dance. The NCAA tourney is what my teammates and I have been working toward our entire basketball lives. If we can get there, it would be a memory I would cherish forever. My first year we were 4-23, and it's been a rocky road to say the least. And to finish on top of the mountain my last year would be a great story to tell my grandchildren."
• Clent Stewart, Kansas State
The Wildcats are 10-4 and destined for the bubble this season, which would likely be right in line for Stewart. He has been through three coaches in four years. Do you think he cherishes getting a bid?
"Coming out of high school, you really don't understand how difficult it is to get to the NCAA Tournament," he said. "You don't understand how hard you have to play each and every game and how it counts in the nonconference."
Being on that bubble, and ultimately waiting through Selection Sunday and not hearing their names called, still stings.
"It was definitely disappointing," Stewart said. "You don't want to be one of those bubble teams. It's not a good feeling to be sitting around and not getting in."
The 20th-ranked Rams are off to a great start, losing only one of 15 nonconference games. Daniels (18.3 points per game) and Bitee (9.5 points) are two of the team's top three scorers. The A-10 looks formidable, but the Rams are up to the challenge of being an NCAA team. Just getting ranked was a huge step.
All that is coming off a crushing, season-ending loss to George Washington in the A-10 championship game in 2007. Bitee went to play for his native Cameroon in the summer, because he was convinced he had to do more to make it to the NCAA.
"The last few years have been frustrating," Bitee said. "This past summer and as we've matured, we all understand that frustration and what needed to happen to make it change. Even the newcomers know, the upperclassmen on our team have to set the tone and make sure everyone's on the same page. When you're done playing early, all you can do is watch the other teams play on TV. We don't want to do that this year. We want to be a team other people watch. It's exciting just thinking about it. But a big part of our success right now is our staying focused. As fast as we've started, it can turn just as quick."
Daniels said the Rams had a team meeting after the season, and set goals to win the A-10 title and get to the Dance. This season's motto is "Unfinished Business," and getting to the Dance fulfills that.
"It's definitely frustrating to see all your hard work and effort go out the door when your team ends its season earlier than you'd like," Daniels said. "And it's frustrating to see other teams play into late March when you're done early in the month. It's hard to watch other teams having fun out there on the court when you're watching it on a TV screen."
• Dwayne Curtis, Ole Miss
Curtis started out at Auburn as a freshman. When Cliff Ellis got fired, he transferred to Ole Miss to play for Rod Barnes. After winning just four SEC games in the 2005-06 season, Barnes was let go and Curtis found out he was going to play for a third coach, Andy Kennedy.
The Rebels had a solid 2006-07 season under Kennedy, finishing atop the SEC West. But that wasn't enough to get a bid. Now this season's undefeated start heading into SEC play is enough to wet the palate and make the Rebels believe they have a legitimate shot to get a bid.
"Making the tournament would mean everything," Curtis said. "I've had some different opportunities with different coaches. I've been on some good teams, especially my freshman year at Auburn. And last year, we almost made it. But almost isn't enough. This is my last opportunity to get there, and I am giving it everything I have."
Curtis broke his foot on the third day of Kennedy's first season, but recovered to play in 26 games with the Rebels. He fractured his left foot in August, but hasn't been slowed this season, averaging 15.2 points and 8.2 rebounds.
"It's very difficult [to make the NCAA Tournament], especially when dealing with injuries," Curtis said. "Last year when I was out, I couldn't help the team with my presence on the court. Then, when I came back, I still couldn't give it 100 percent and couldn't prepare as much. So who knows what our full potential could be without injuries?"
• Leonard Houston, Drake
Houston is averaging 14.5 points, helping Drake match its best start ever with a 12-1 record.
You think he's focused on the NCAAs now, after not even coming close the previous three seasons, playing for Tom Davis and now Keno Davis?
"You can't really put it into words," he said. "It is all you ever dream about growing up. Making the NCAA Tournament is the goal of every college basketball player.
"It would mean a lot to our program and it would be monumental. People don't know the commitment student-athletes make especially during the offseason to get better and strive for goals like making the NCAA."
• James Mays, Clemson
Mays was ineligible for the last half of the 2005-06 season, when he was a sophomore, so he was on the court for 28 straight wins: the Tigers' 11-0 start that season, followed by their 17-0 start in 2006-07.
But he also was a big contributor as the Tigers stumbled down the stretch and shockingly missed the NCAA Tournament last season.
This season, Clemson is off to a 12-2 start. Mays missed five games with a hip injury, but he's back and scored 18 points in a New Year's Day win over Alabama.
Clemson has been close but just can't get over the hump -- at least not yet. Sunday night, the Tigers lost a heartbreaking game to North Carolina in overtime.
"We've been close the last couple of years, but for one reason or another have fallen short of our goal," Mays said prior to that game. "Last season we got off to a great start, hit a bump in the road, then finished strong. This year we hope to continue our strong play throughout the course of the season. If we do that, an NCAA bid will take care of itself.
"I believe this year's team has the experience and the talent necessary to make a run toward achieving this goal. We know it's not an easy road, as we've learned over the past few years. But it's a challenge we certainly look forward to meeting."
• Lanny Smith, Houston
Smith was the starting point guard in his first two seasons with Houston, but he had to sit out 2006-07 with a foot injury that resulted in two surgeries. He's back and has started nine games as the Cougars have jumped out to an 11-2 start.
What would it mean for him to be in the NCAA Tournament?
"When I came here, the coach at the time [Ray McCallum] sold me on the idea of being one of the building blocks to bringing the University of Houston back to national prominence," Smith said. "After Coach [Tom] Penders came here, we were on the bubble a couple of times. That was frustrating knowing that we were close. To make it to the Tournament would be the perfect ending to my collegiate career."
Smith, a Houston native, also hears it from his peers.
"A lot of people questioned my decision to come to the University of Houston," he said. "Then, every year I would see a lot of my buddies who went to different schools play in the NCAA Tournament every year. They always would ask, 'When are you all going to go?' or 'Are you ever going to make it?' They are still questioning my decision."
• Anthony King, Miami
King is with the Canes this season only because of a rule change that allowed him to receive a medical redshirt last season after he injured his wrist in the team's eighth game. He's one of the main reasons the Canes are off to a 13-1 start.
"It feels great to have a strong nonconference start heading into a tough ACC schedule," he said. "We are in a great position to make a run for the NCAA Tournament -- something that hasn't been done since I've been here. It would mean everything to get to the NCAA Tournament. One of your main purposes in playing college basketball is to get to the tournament. With all the hard work, sweat [and] practices, everything that you work for is to get there."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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