Rooting Interests

UConn faction leads Pistons contingent as NCAA tourney tips off

UConn has a strong presence in the Pistons locker room.
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images
If you polled the Pistons’ locker room, the ideal Final Four would have Kentucky coming out of the East, UConn – apologies to Cincinnati – winning the West, Georgetown emerging from the Southwest and Gonzaga springing the upset in the East.

Eight Pistons are represented in this year’s NCAA tournament among five college teams. Four of the five – all but Gonzaga – go into their first-round games with the more favorable seed, which means more than half the Pistons’ roster will be planning their week around tournament tipoff times.

“It’s a wonderful time to sit down and watch TV all day,” said Greg Monroe, who only a year ago was participating in the NCAA tournament. “It’s a fun time for everyone.”

The most immediate confrontation involving alma maters could come Saturday. If UConn, No. 3 seed in the West, beats Bucknell on Thursday, and sixth-seeded Cincinnati knocks off Missouri, then the Huskies – represented by Ben Gordon, Rip Hamilton and Charlie Villanueva – will have triple the representation in the Pistons’ locker room of Cincinnati, supported only by Jason Maxiell.

“We beat them the last time we played ’em, too,” Ben Gordon said, recalling the only meeting of the season between the Big East rivals, a 67-59 UConn win at Cincinnati on Feb. 27. “Max owes me some money.

“Yo, Max,” Gordon yelled across the practice facility to Maxiell. “You owe me, dog.”

In addition to the Huskies and Bearcats, the Pistons will be represented in the tournament by the Georgetown Hoyas of Monroe and DaJuan Summers, Tayshaun Prince’s Kentucky Wildcats and Austin Daye’s Gonzaga Bulldogs. A few other usual NCAA participants, Georgia Tech and Maryland, fell short this season, leaving Will Bynum and Chris Wilcox out of the fight.

At least by the NCAA’s seeding process, UConn is the likeliest of the five teams to get to Houston for this year’s Final Four. In addition to its No. 3 seed and Cincinnati’s No. 6, Kentucky is a No. 4 seed and Georgetown also a No. 6. Gonzaga, as a No. 11 seed, will be a first-round underdog to St. John’s.

Daye, who would be a senior at Gonzaga if he hadn’t given up his final two years of eligibility to enter the 2009 draft, still feels a connection to the Spokane, Wash., campus and team.

“It’s exciting for me,” he said. “I always like to watch college basketball. When your team is playing in the NCAA tournament, it’s special, although we always seem to make it now. But for us as a program – I still say ‘us’ because it still feels like I’m a part of the team – it’s a really good thing.”

Gonzaga will be appearing in its 13th straight NCAA tournament – the only active longer streaks belong to Kansas (22), Duke (16) and Michigan State (14) – which means the Bulldogs are no longer the cute little upstart that went to the Elite Eight in 1999 as a No. 10 seed. Those Bulldogs of Matt Santangelo and Richie Frahm upset Minnesota, Stanford and Florida before losing by five in the regional finals to UConn – the Rip Hamilton-led Huskies that would go on to win the school’s first NCAA title by beating Duke.

“They’ve kind of been stinking it up this year,” Daye said. “I wasn’t too happy, but we did a good job of coming through toward the end of the season and winning those big games. So that’s all a credit to coach (Mark) Few. He does a great job with the program, especially against big-time teams.”

Nobody goes into the tournament on more of a roll than UConn, who won an unprecedented five Big East tournament games to rocket up the seeding charts after entering the conference tournament as the league’s No. 9 seed.

“I think it was definitely the closing rush in the Big East,” Gordon said. “I don’t think anybody anticipated them getting that high of a seed. Them winning that five games in a row and showing the kind of dominance they did in the tournament, I think that really helped them.”

Kemba Walker broke Gordon’s school record for points in a Big East tournament, though he had two more games to get it done. Gordon scored 81 for a 27-point average in winning MVP honors when he led UConn to the 2004 Big East title – and subsequently the NCAA title – while Walker scored 130 (26.0 average) in leading UConn’s five Big East wins last week.

It was reminiscent of the run Syracuse enjoyed in winning four straight games, also as the Big East’s No. 9 seed, to earn its way into the 2006 NCAA tournament. But the Orange then got knocked off in the first round by Texas A&M.

“I think they’re fortunate to have won those five games in a row,” Gordon said. “Nobody’s ever done that. They’re humble right now and real hungry. I don’t think there’s going to be any letdown in the tournament. Anything can happen, but I don’t see them going in with a lack of energy or focus.”

UConn humble? That would come as news to Monroe.

“They talk trash all the time,” he said. “Us Georgetown guys are more classy. We just handle our business and keep on going. We don’t talk trash.”

“I think that’s probably because we beat them most of the time,” Gordon grinned, “so he really doesn’t have much choice.”

  • Terrico White was cleared for full contact in practice for the first time since breaking his foot in the team’s first preseason game on Oct. 5. He said he’s still experiencing some pain in that right foot.

  • The Pistons have averaged 111 points a game in their three meetings this season with Toronto, Wednesday night’s opponent at The Palace. They won both meetings at Toronto, losing 120-116 at The Palace in December when the Raptors erased a 24-point deficit late in the third quarter. Ex-Piston Amir Johnson, out with a sprained ankle, will not make the trip.