Based on basketball pedigrees, there are no Cinderella teams still dancing in the South Regional of the NCAA Tournament.
But because a pair of double-digit seeds will meet in the first game of Thursday night’s doubleheader at the FedEx Forum, there is a distinct underdog flavor to the matchup between Dayton (25-10) and Stanford (23-12).
Dayton, the region’s No. 11 seed, is the lowest-seeded team remaining in the tournament. Stanford, a No. 10 seed, is back in the NCAA for the first time since 2008, when current TCU coach Trent Johnson led the Cardinal to a Sweet 16 berth.
Bottom line: the matchup (6:15 p.m., KTVT/Ch. 11) guarantees a double-digit seed will reach the Elite Eight and play Saturday for a berth in the Final Four, April 5 and 7 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Players from both schools acknowledged Wednesday that, while the seeds suggest they have pulled two upsets to reach this point, neither team feels out of place in attempting to position itself for a Saturday contest against the Florida-UCLA winner that will determine the Final Four participant from the South.
“At first, we were really excited to be in the tournament,” said Dayton forward Devin Oliver, whose team has knocked off Ohio State and Syracuse to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1984. “Once we got that first win under out belt, it was kind of like, ‘Let’s keep this going.’ We know we can play with anybody on any given night as long as we’re ready.”
Stanford players have adopted a similar mantra since knocking off New Mexico and Kansas to put themselves a victory away from the school’s first Elite Eight appearance since 2001. Stanford last reached the Final Four in 1998. With five victories in the last six games under coach Johnny Dawkins, the Cardinal heads into the Dayton game on a hot streak and as the higher-seeded team for the first time in the 2014 tournament.
“Coach always tells us that there’s only a handful of teams that come into this tournament thinking they have a chance to win,” Stanford forward Josh Huestis said. “The rest of them are just happy to be here. We pride ourselves on being a team that believes we can win this whole thing. Someone’s going to win this tournament. Why not us?”
Because of Stanford’s 14 NCAA Tournament appearances in the past two decades, combined with its Pac-12 pedigree and its recent list of NBA-bound players (Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez, Brevin Knight, Casey Jacobsen, Todd Lichti, Mark Madsen), most college basketball fans are familiar with the Cardinal program. That places Dayton, the No. 11 seed, in more of the Cinderella role in the minds of most college basketball fans.
But for the Flyers, who will be making their seventh Sweet 16 appearance in program history (two more than Stanford), the glass slipper is not a comfortable fit when facts are added into the equation.
Over the last seven seasons, Dayton is 24-11 against teams from BCS conferences, including 5-2 this season. The Flyers play in the Atlantic 10, which placed six teams in this year’s NCAA field and earned a higher conference RPI (sixth nationally) than the SEC (seventh), home of top-ranked Florida, the South’s No. 1 seed.
Dayton is 6-0 in its last six matchups against ACC opponents and 8-0 in its last eight contests against SEC teams.
But the Flyers do not get much national publicity despite a deep, talented front line that complements guard Jordan Sibert (12.3 points per game), the team’s leading scorer and a transfer from Ohio State. What they do get is a lot of sellouts at their home arena (13,455 capacity) and the undivided attention of a fan base that has only an FCS football program to support.
“It’s a smaller bowl to look into, but you are the show,” Dayton coach Archie Miller said. “The community, the program, they both live off one another. You may show up and eight cakes and 19 boxes of cookies are going to be in your office or in the locker room after you get a great win.”
Because of Dayton’s lower national profile, Dawkins said he’s had to enlighten his players about the Flyers’ potential heading into Thursday’s matchup. With a victory, Dayton would reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 1984 and the third time in program history.
“Their conference is very good, no different than the Pac-12,” said Dawkins, noting that both leagues earned six NCAA berths. “They’ve always had a good program. Their kids are used to playing at a high level, and they’re very good.”
But the Flyers know, as the lowest-seeded team left in the NCAA Tournament, they have a chance to earn lots of new fans if they continue to be a bracket buster against Stanford.
“There’s a David-and-Goliath type feel. But we all want to play in the Elite Eight,” Oliver said. “We need to prepare for Stanford like we prepared for Syracuse or Ohio State.”
In many ways, Dayton guard Vee Sanford said the two double-digit seeds have a lot in common.
“The Stanford players, they’re just as hungry as we are,” Sanford said. “They kind of have a chip on their shoulder, like we do. We see how they out-competed Kansas in their previous game. We’re going to see a hard and well-fought game.”
We’ll also see the winner emerge as a double-digit seed with a chance to advance to the Final Four in Arlington if it can pull another upset in Saturday’s Elite Eight matchup.