Chadd Cripe

This is the NCAA basketball team that Boise will fall in love with this week

A fancy dunk and other NCAA practice moments

Here are a few moments from the open practices Wednesday at Taco Bell Arena, including a creative dunk from UNC Greensboro.
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Here are a few moments from the open practices Wednesday at Taco Bell Arena, including a creative dunk from UNC Greensboro.

No visiting NCAA Tournament team has captured Boise’s heart quite like Hampton in 2001.

The Pirates didn’t just upset No. 2-seed Iowa State — the fourth such upset in tournament history. They did it with a smile, and with style. They hoisted their coach in the air. They sent their band to an Idaho Steelheads game on the off-day.

With that in mind, I went to press conference and practice day Wednesday in search of the team that Boise should embrace this week. Whose style of play will attract us? Whose personalities will emerge? Who will have the most fun?

There were eight candidates, but in reality there were only four.

Rooting for Kentucky or Ohio State or Arizona as a neutral observer would be like adopting the New England Patriots. No, thanks.

I’m sure many Boiseans will pull for Gonzaga, and that I can see. The Bulldogs program is the basketball equivalent of the Boise State football program — the scrappy upstart that challenged the traditional division between power programs and the rest with unwavering excellence. Plus, there are natural ties — like the more than 1,000 Gonzaga alums living in the Boise area.

“Spokane is a lot closer than UNC (Greensboro), so please cheer for us,” Gonzaga junior Josh Perkins said.

[Previews: Gonzaga vs. UNC Greensboro, Ohio State vs. South Dakota State, Kentucky vs. Davidson, Arizona vs. Buffalo]

But the Bulldogs don’t have that Cinderella charm anymore. They were the national runners-up last year. This is their 20th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. They’re more Wicked Stepmother than fairy-tale heroine at this point. They’re out, too.

That leaves the four underdogs in Thursday’s first round — and who doesn’t love an underdog? No. 13 seed UNC Greensboro faces No. 4 Gonzaga, No. 12 South Dakota State takes on No. 5 Ohio State, No. 13 Buffalo battles No. 4 Arizona and No. 12 Davidson gets a shot at No. 5 Kentucky.

All four have traveled more than 1,000 miles to get here. All will need every ounce of fan support they can elicit from the neutral majority in Taco Bell Arena — and likely will get it, with the possible exception of UNC Greensboro.

Who will win us over — even if they don’t win?

▪  The Spartans of UNC Greensboro will make their third NCAA appearance and first in 17 years. Coach Wes Miller has built a success story the hard way: over time. He posted a losing record each of his first four seasons. Instead of firing him, the Spartans let him keep building. And the next two years he went a combined 52-17, culminating with this year’s Southern Conference championship.

This is a team that takes pride in defense and has bought into the idea that the next drill is more important than the next game.

“I feel like we play basketball the way it’s supposed to be played — really hard, defense first,” senior Jordy Kuiper said. “... Every time we step on the court, we feel like it’s the last time we’ll pick up a basketball. And I feel like the passion we have for our game, for our program, for our city, is contagious.”

Kuiper, who is from the Netherlands, dropped a surprise Boise connection Wednesday. He remembers working with former Boise State standout Matt Bauscher back home. Bauscher spent two of his six pro seasons in Kuiper’s hometown and won a national championship there, with Kuiper in the stands. Bauscher hadn’t spoken to Kuiper in seven years but hurried to the arena Wednesday when he saw Kuiper’s comments on Twitter.

“I’m very, very proud of him,” Bauscher said. “He was at every camp.”

▪  South Dakota State star Mike Daum started his pitch for Boise fans with his school’s most recognizable asset: the mascot.

“We have one of the most unique mascots in the game,” Daum said. “Everyone should see that and go, ‘Ah, I want some Jackrabbits to win.’ 

Added Daum: “We have fun on the court. We play for each other. You’ll see us smiling and laughing.”

That’s endearing, but so is this: Daum defers to his mother as the “real baller” in the family. Michele Daum (formerly Hoppes) is an athletics hall of famer at Wyoming. He didn’t beat her one-on-one until he was in seventh grade.

“She taught me everything I knew about basketball up until I beat her one-on-one,” Daum said. “That was a good day.”

The Jackrabbits are in the tournament for the third straight year and have won 11 straight games this season but never have won an NCAA tourney game. This could be the year — and beating Ohio State would make the Jackrabbits the toast of the town. It was, after all, former Ohio State President Gordon Gee who said Boise State and TCU didn’t belong in the college football national championship discussion in 2010 because power-conference teams “do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor.”

It would be easy for Boise State fans to relate to South Dakota State. The school is in Brookings, S.D., a town of about 20,000 where the Jackrabbits are an integral part of the community.

“It’s a really unique situation,” coach T.J. Otzelberger said, “because it has a small-town feel with big-time dreams and goals and visions.”

▪  Davidson hopes to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Stephen Curry-led run to the Elite Eight with more tournament success this year. The Wildcats shoot 3-pointers by the dozens and have an unbreakable bond with NBA star Curry, who FaceTimed the team while they were waiting for their conference championship trophy.

“It’s hard to believe it is 10 years because it’s such a vivid, treasured memory,” coach Bob McKillop said. “The spirit of that team, of that experience, hovers around our campus.”

And it’s had a huge impact on this year’s team. Senior Rusty Reigel attended three of the four 2008 tournament games as a fan.

“Cheer us on,” he said, “and we’ll show you a good time.”

▪  And then there’s Buffalo, the last team to visit the media Wednesday but the one with the most personality. Coach Nate Oats even broke down the NFL Buffalo Bills’ quarterback situation.

“If you like hard-nosed, fierce competitors,” junior CJ Massinburg said, “we don’t back down from anybody. ... We’re very easy to cheer for.”

The Bulls pointed out they have a fan who shows up wearing a Speedo, a cape and nothing else. He’s even on Twitter as @UBNakedGuy.

The self-described “sexiest thing about UB Sports” aside, the Bulls say they have a good-looking team.

“We’ve got a great group of guys — a lot of guys that are handsome,” senior guard Wes Clark said. “We’re going to play hard, we’re gonna fight, but we’re gonna look nice at the same time.”

And there’s your winner. The Buffalo Bulls have the talent and hurry-up game plan to give Arizona a fight in the first round. But they also have the personality to make all of us smile.

Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman sports editor. Contact him at ccripe@idahostatesman.com and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.

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