HUTCHINSON, Kan. There will be a lot more celebrating "mid-major" programs in the NCAA if March Madness turns out like this year's NJCAA tournament.
Only five ranked teams made the tourney field of 16. Just two survived Round 1. And only one of them will play for the junior-college national championship.
"Juco rankings are hard to judge," said SLCC coach Norm Parrish.
At least the pollsters got it right when they pulled the Bruins' name out of a hat. SLCC, which plays in the NJCAA semifinals tonight, is assured of no lower than a fourth-place finish after winning its first two games. Salt Lake was ranked fourth at the end of the regular season and has been the highest-rated team remaining since No. 2 Chipola College lost to unranked Seward County Community College on Tuesday.
The vast majority of Top 20 teams lost in their must-win conference tournaments, including No. 1 Wallace State and third-ranked Southern Idaho, which SLCC eliminated. But three of the cursed ranked squads lost in the first round of the national tournament Tuesday and Wednesday.
Unfortunately for the 31-3 Bruins, they're matched in the semis against the only other ranked team left standing, No. 19 Three Rivers Community College (29-6) out of Poplar Bluff, Mo.
Three Rivers, which has been to the NJCAAs 15 times under the direction of 1,000-plus wins coach Gene Bess, beat Eastern Wyoming and Eastern Arizona en route to the semifinals.
"They're another perennial power. They have an experienced coach. They're a very good team," Parrish said. "Hey, if we bring it, it'll be a good game. ... I think defensively we'll get after it."
The Bruins will receive a big challenge trying to contain Baylor-bound big man Artem Valov. The 6-9 center from Novosibirsk, Russia, averages 14 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Parrish says he's arguably "the best post in the tournament."
BIG WINNERS: SLCC has racked up wins by huge margins this season. Of the Bruins' 31 victories, 23 were by double-digits, including 13 by 31 or more points. They even walloped Great MacEwan College by 10 touchdowns, 106-36.
So Wednesday's 74-45 win over Southeastern Illinois College wasn't exactly abnormal for SLCC. A blowout of that proportion just wasn't expected in the NJCAA's Elite Eight.
UNFINISHED BUSINESS: Making it to their first-ever NJCAA semifinal isn't satisfying enough for the Bruins. They want to claim the school's first-ever basketball national title.
"Honestly, it's a good feeling, but we're really not content. We're here to win a championship," said SLCC guard Brian Green. "We're happy, but we're really not that happy. It's cool to be in the final four, but we want to win two more games and that's how we're going into it. ... We want to win it all."
TAKING CREDIT: After hitting 7-of-9 shots and scoring 23 points in Wednesday's semifinal blowout win, Green is feeling good about his stroke.
"My confidence," he said, "is pretty high right now."
But forward Vassy Banny, who often sets up some of the Bruins' hard picks that free up Green and his smooth quick-release trigger, jokingly took some of the credit. He often reminds his teammate to let the plays develop and to not get "anxious" Green's description of how he gets sometimes because he'll get open.
"I tell him he's going to hit a lot of shots if he's patient," Banny said. "I guess he listened to me."
Speaking of taking credit, Parrish took some for Banny's rim-jarring tomahawk dunk Wednesday.
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