DAYTON, Ohio — At Tuesday’s First Four press conference, almost a week removed from Holy Cross’s improbable Patriot League championship and NCAA Tournament bid, Crusaders coach Bill Carmody still fielded the inevitable Cinderella questions: Has any run in his 32-year coaching career been a bigger surprise?
“I mean, it’s up there,” said Carmody. “It’s up there. It definitely was a surprise.”
On Wednesday, another win might not be as surprising, given the way Holy Cross has played this March. The Crusaders will face Southern in a play-in game, a chance for their first win in the NCAA Tournament since 1953.
They are again considered underdogs, but at this point, it seems that the Crusaders barely notice.
“We are always playing with a chip on our shoulder, because teams look down on us like we don’t deserve to be playing,” said forward Malachi Alexander. “Even our play-in game in our own league tournament, you know, we were the underdogs going into that. It adds a toughness to our team that I think will easily translate over.”
Holy Cross finished 10-19 in the regular season, with a 2-13 record on the road, before winning four straight away games in nine days to win the conference tournament.
“It’s been crazy. It’s just been a dream,” said Alexander, who scored a Patriot League tournament-record 83 points in those games. “It’s all pretty much been like a fantasy, just because you envision this growing up. I’m just very grateful.”
Southern (22-12), a Baton Rouge school in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, also made it to the First Four with a close win in its conference tournament final, a 54-53 victory over Jackson State that ended on a last-second missed shot.
The Jaguars are led by Adrian Rodgers (16.6 points per game) and Trelun Banks (12.6). They thrive on short offensive possessions and forcing turnovers, a sharp contrast to Holy Cross’s Princeton-style offense.
Southern will likely try to speed up the pace and prevent open Holy Cross shots beyond the perimeter.
“We are basically traditional bigs around the basket, so in a short period of time, we’ve got to train our minds to go out and guard them beyond the 3-point arc,” said Southern coach Roman Banks said.
“We’re going to do the best we can as it relates to making adjustments, because we usually play up-in-your-face-type defense, but obviously against the Princeton, there’s some things you have to change the style of play to be ready for.”
The Crusaders’ switch to a 1-3-1 defense confused Patriot League opponents in the tournament. Banks said that since his team has not played against a similar type of amoeba defense this season, studying Holy Cross’s defense in the next 24 hours also will be a priority.
Meanwhile, Carmody has focused on intensity and precision on offense, holding short, hard practices and making sure his team is relaxed.
Wednesday’s winner will travel to Spokane, Wash., to play No. 1 West seed Oregon on Friday, but the Crusaders are trying to keep that thought out of their minds.
“I think part of the reason why we did so well in the Patriot League Tournament was that we didn’t look forward to the next game,” said guard Robert Champion.
“Obviously, every time we play a game, you know the next game is in the back of your mind, but I think we’ve done a great job of focusing on the game at hand and that’s what we’ll do for Southern, too.”
The Crusaders’ plan was to watch the two First Four games Tuesday night, primarily to get a feel for the UD Arena atmosphere. Dayton consistently sells out its 13,435-seat venue for regular-season games, and First Four attendance is similar. In contrast, attendance at Crusaders games this year has averaged slightly better than 2,000.
Given the stage on which Holy Cross has excelled the past two weeks, though, Carmody isn’t worried about his team coming out awestruck.
“You have smart guys, they recognize all the trappings, and I think they’re pretty mature,” Carmody said. “We’ve been in a pretty good place the last few weeks. So I really don’t want to coach that much and to upset the balance of things. Their heads are just where we want them to be.”