The NCAA tournament begins Tuesday, which means it’s time to wrap my arms around a team I know nothing about, representing a school I’ve never seen, from a town I’ve never visited.
I’m adopting the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin State University.
Why the Jacks? For one, they’re not associated with a big-time basketball conference. Seven teams from the Big 12 got into the tournament Sunday. Six teams also advanced from the Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC and the Atlantic 10 – including Massachusetts, assigned a No. 6 seed a week after it was seeded sixth in its own conference tournament.
Another incentive to pull for Stephen F. Austin? It’s located in Nacogdoches, Texas, miles and miles from all those North Carolina schools in the bracket: Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, North Carolina Central and Coastal Carolina, which actually is in South Carolina but close enough to be convicted of guilt by association.
What I like best about Stephen F. Austin, though, is that before Sunday, I’d have been hard pressed to identify anything about it. During those seasons I’m left without a rooting interest in the NCAA tournament, I try to get behind a long shot with limited national exposure.
Harvard’s an interesting story, and it would be fun if the Ivy League champions got past Cincinnati in their tournament opener, and an absolute blast if the Crimson were to prevail in a presumptive match-up against Michigan State. Still, it’s Harvard, which has produced eight U.S. presidents, 62 living billionaires, 150 Nobel Laureates and 335 Rhodes Scholars.
All that along with a basketball team capable of busting a bracket? No fair.
I’d love to see Cal Poly – or as it’s officially known, the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif. – make some noise in the tournament, if for no other reason than it once awarded an architecture degree to Alfred Yankovic. When Yankovic was a student at Cal Poly, classmates nicknamed him “Weird Al,” and the rest is history.
But the Mustangs, who finished the regular season at 13-19, are the lone losers in the field of 68. If they beat Texas Southern in the play-in round, they’ll face 34-0 Wichita State, top seed in a Midwest Regional so packed with powerhouses that defending national-champion Louisville has been seeded fourth.
Cal Poly soon will be shown the door, along with Manhattan, Wofford, Mercer, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, North Dakota State, Delaware, Western Michigan, Eastern Kentucky, Albany, Mount St. Mary’s and American University.
Stephen F. Austin, on the other hand, could be going places as a No. 12 seed. Under first-year coach Brad Underwood, the Jacks haven’t lost since Nov. 23, when, let’s see (I’m checking out the schedule now) they were beaten on the road by ETSU. That sounds humiliating – losing to some guys working for a sports network? – but, upon further review, ETSU is East Tennessee State, which posted a respectable fourth-place finish in the Atlantic Sun Conference, one game behind USC Upstate.
(All I want for Christmas is my remaining front teeth, and a T-shirt from USC Upstate.)
Stephen F. Austin is 31-2, and once the Jacks surprise fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth, they’ll be primed to beat either UCLA or Tulsa for a Sweet 16 berth. That would set up a probable collision with top overall seed Florida, and by then the bandwagon will really be rolling.
First things first. For a few days, maybe even a week or two, I get to revel in the history of Stephen F. Austin, named after a Texas founding father and not to be confused with Steve Austin (The “Six Million Dollar Man” from the 1970s television series) or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the retired pro wrestler.
Alums of Stephen F. Austin State University, I have learned, range from Joseph W. Kennedy (co-discoverer of Plutonium), to musician Don Henley of the Eagles, to Bum Phillips, the late, great football coach responsible for such thesaurus-caliber quotations as “the harder we played, the behinder we got” and the priceless take on the plodding effort of Hall-of-Famer Earl Campbell to finish a mile run during training camp.
“When it’s first-and-a-mile,” Phillips said, “I won’t give it to him.”
Bum Phillips wasn’t the first guy to entertain an Nacogdoches audience. In 1912, as the story goes, the Marx Bros. stopped through town as a sibling singing act. Midway through the performance, a man burst toward the stage screaming “runaway mule!”
The theater emptied, and when the coast was clear, the patrons returned to their seats. Julius Marx, who had yet to become famous as “Groucho,” wasn’t pleased, and he insulted the locals with such zingers as “Nacogdoches is full of roaches!”
Groucho fired a succession of one-liners, and the audience’s surprising reaction – a cacophony of laughs – abruptly ended the singing careers of the Marx Bros. that night.
Despite my instantly acquired affection for Stephen F. Austin State University and the town of Nacagdoches, I realize it will take a miracle for the Lumberjacks to win two games, let alone six of them.
But it’s March, a magical month rich with the possibility of a college-basketball miracle. Of the 68 schools revealed Sunday in the bracket – of the dozens of Been There and Done That teams, and the dozens of No Hope but Good Luck teams – one team caught my eye: The team from Nacagdoches.
If Stephen F. Austin stumbles, I will consider a Plan B, followed by Plans C, D and E. But for now? It’s all about Plan A and all about the Lumberjacks – riding into the tournament with the momentum of a runaway mule.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com