Hello, everybody, do you know us? We're a college basketball team. We have no star players, but we managed to win a berth in the NCAA tournament anyway.
Our coach - first name starts with an R - plays 10 to 12 players every game, and it seems like a different player comes through for us every time. We aren't very big, but we still manage to outrebound most teams. We had a lousy season last year, and no one expected much from us this year. We were picked to finish in the middle of the pack in our conference, but, surprise! we won the championship instead.Need another hint? Our school colors are red and white.
Who are we?
If you said the University of Utah, you are . . . wrong - but it was a nice guess anyway.
We are the University of South Alabama Jaguars, and on Friday afternoon we will play the tenth-ranked University of Utah Runnin' Utes in the first round of the West Regional in Tucson, Ariz. See you there (we'll be the ones with the blue trim).
Does this sound familiar, or what? Only a year ago, the Jaguars were down on their luck, with an 11-17 record. This season they were picked to finish fifth in the Sun Belt Conference, but for the second time in three years they won both the regular-season championship and the conference post-season tournament championship. They'll take a 22-8 record to Tucson.
"This has been a unique team in that it didn't have a stud," says USA Head Coach Ron Arrow, the Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year. "In our style of play, we were limited in what we could do. It boiled down to finding the right combinations at the right time."
Arrow regularly used as many as 12 players each game, with 10 of them averaging 4.9 points per contest or better.
Does any (or all) of this ring a bell?It should. There are many striking similarities between the Jaguars and the Utes, who also use 10 to 12 players each game, spread their scoring duties evenly, have little size and no stars (except, possibly, Josh Grant) and crash the boards. Like the Jaguars, they had a poor season last year, had few expectations this year (they were picked to finish sixth) and won their conference championship anyway.
Aside from such similarities, however, when it comes to style and personnel the Jaguars tend to favor No. 1-ranked Nevada-Las Vegas. They like to run and gun, score big numbers and press, and they have the athletes to do so. What's more, eight of their 13 players are junior college transfers, including four starters.
No wonder Utah assistant coach Joe Cravens says, "They're a mini-Vegas."
It might not be a coincidence. After all, USA's coach, Ronnie Arrow, is a close friend of UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian.
Before arriving in Mobile, Arrow built his reputation while coaching San Jacinto junior college in Texas. During his 10 years there, he produced a record of 302-43 and won three national championships (his teams won a JC record 71 consecutive games during one stretch).
During Arrow's four seasons at USA, the Jaguars have produced records of 15-14, 23-9, 11-17 and 22-8 and twice gone to the NCAA tournament. Their most memorable moment: an upset of Southeastern Conference champion Alabama in the first round of the 1988 NCAA tournament. Their worst: last season.
"Last year was an embarrassment," says Arrow. "We didn't have any chemistry at all."
This year's team has been another matter. The Jaguars started the season slowly, losing close non-conference games on the road to Arkansas (101-91), New Orleans (96-95 in overtime) and Louisville (85-83). But they came on strong late in the season, winning 13 of their last 15 games, including a road victory over then-ninth-ranked Southern Mississippi (their only win over a Top 25 team).
Unlike his early teams at USA, which featured such players as Junie Lewis and Jeff Hodge, Arrow has had to rely on balanced team play more than star power this season. The Jaguars lack big men and dominant scorers, but they spread the work equally, shoot 49 percent from the field, outrebound opponents by an average of four boards per game and win.
How balanced are the Jaguars? They score an average of 89.3 points per game, yet their leading scorer, Kevin McDaniels, a 6-foot-2 senior guard, averages just 13.6 points per game. Cesar Portillo, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound sophomore forward and the team's biggest player, averages 11.2 points per game, and Marvin Eackles, a 6-5 senior forward and the younger brother of the Washington Bullets' Ledell, averages 10.8.
The remainder of the starting lineup consists of Bobby Curtis, a 6-foot-7 forward who averages 8.6 points, and Cedric Yelding, a 6-1 sophomore guard, who averages 7.2.
This is to say nothing of three reserves who average eight points per game - Derek Turner, Thomas Adams and Boobie James (the latter is a former UNLV/Dixie College player who started 22 games for USA last year).
"Our goal is to get to the Sweet 16," says Arrow.
But to get there, they'll have to get past Utah.