The story of the NCAA Tournament has been the performance of the mid-majors as two have taken down No. 1 seeds. Butler knocked off Syracuse in the West Regional semifinals Thursday night after Northern Iowa stunned Kansas in the second round of the Midwest Regional last Saturday.
Thus, it is not surprising that the breakout player of this tournament has come from a mid-major. Senior center Omar Samhan will led Saint Mary's (28-5) into its South Regional quarterfinal game tonight against third-seeded Baylor (27-7) at Houston after sparking upset victories by the 10th-seeded Gaels over seventh-seeded Richmond and second-seeded Villanova in the first two rounds.
Samhan had 29 points and 12 points in just 28 minutes of the 80-71 victory over Richmond then had a 32-point, 7-rebound performance in 32 minutes as Saint Mary's beat Villanova 75-68.
However, Samhan's outgoing personality has gotten him noticed as much as his production. He is an emotional and intense type on the court and gregarious and funny off it. Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett believes the 6'10", 260-pounder's demeanor rubs off on the rest of the team.
"Omar's having fun," Bennett said. "He's enjoying this, which he should be. He's a good competitor. He'll be ready to compete. Omar's smart. He knows this is the time to have some fun, enjoy this moment. He knows the deal. I wouldn't take him too seriously with all his quotes, but he knows what he's doing. It's kind of fun to watch. If he gets too close to crossing that line, I'll reel him in, but he's been OK so far."
Samhan has been using the national stage to profess his love for country/western crossover star Taylor Swift. He is even honest enough to admit he listens to Swift's music in his headphones to get pumped up for games. Whether he's serious, trying to pull a fast one on the media or making a very public play for Swift's heart, it has given the media a different angle to report on about Saint Mary's than the tired "Cinderella" theme.
"People think it's weird," Samhan said of his musical choice. "But there is so much emotion and excitement before these games, it just kind of slows you down, because I'm just like a time bomb waiting to go off. So it keeps me mellow. Taylor, I feel like she's singing to me sometimes. I love her, and I'm going to keep listening to her."
Samhan is more than a talker, too, as his performance in the first two rounds of the tournament suggest. It is a continuation of a productive season in which he has averaged 21.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 32.2 minutes while ranking 27th nationally in percent of possessions (30.7), 32nd in percentage of shots (32.4), 26th in defensive rebounding percentage (25.6), 65th in offensive rebounding percentage (13.5), 56th in block percentage (8.1) and 72nd in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (6.3).
In fact, Samhan's only fear in talking so much is that perhaps he is being perceived more as a goofball than as a potential NBA post player.
"When it's time to play, you better bring it, because if you don't, they revert back to this, he was having too much fun and he wasn't focused.," Samhan said. "So it's a fine line, if you talk like this, you better come ready to play. But I think it's good. I think it's healthy for our team. We're definitely the underdog and don't get a lot of respect. People think we should be scared for some reason, because we don't play in a huge gym, because we don't have McDonald's All Americans on our team. I don't even think I'm saying anything crazy. We're 11 guys that work hard and play hard together. I think that's what I want America to know and everybody to know, that we are America's team. We're just a blue-collar team that works hard, brings our lunch pail and hard hat to practice every day and gets after it."
Good Times Continue for Northern Iowa
Northern Iowa's upset of Kansas, the tournament's top overall seed, turned out to be just the beginning of good things for the Panthers. On Wednesday, coach Ben Jacobson received a 10-year contract extension and Sports Illustrated hit the newsstands with senior guard Ali Farokhmanesh on the cover.
Considering ninth-seeded Northern Iowa is 30-4 going into Midwest Regional semifinal against fifth-seeded Michigan State (26-8) tonight at St. Louis and coming off regular-season and tournament titles in the Missouri Valley Conference, now would seem the time for the 39-year-old Jacobson to cash in with a lucrative contract from a school in a major conference.
Iowa is looking for a coach and Jacobson was reported to be at the top of its list. However, Jacobson decided to stay put.
"Personally, the University of Northern Iowa has been a great fit for my wife and I," Jacobson said. "Our boys are 4 years old and 6 years old, and we're just getting started with our family. We feel great about it personally. And professionally, it's about the fit. We've got tremendous support from our president and from our administration. This basketball program has moved forward light years in the nine years that I've been on campus, because of the things that we've had happen from a support standpoint."
Farokhmanesh certainly never expected to land on the cover of SI when he transferred from Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City two years ago.
"It's been fun," he said. "I mean, there has been a lot more attention coming towards the program in general. So it's been a lot of fun and overwhelming at times, but it's definitely been a lot of fun."
Turner Wins Robertson Trophy
Ohio State junior forward Evan Turner won the Oscar Robertson Trophy, awarded by the United State Basketball Writers Association to the national player of the year. Turner was also a USBWA first-team All-America selection along with Kansas' Sherron Collins, Syracuse's Wesley Johnson, Villanova's Scottie Reynolds and Kentucky's John Wall.
"Not to be into myself or arrogant or anything, but I did," Turner said when asked if he thought he would be in the running for the various player of the year awards at the beginning of the season. "I always say I don't want to be mediocre. I want to be the best and I've worked more on my game and the better I got within the system and stuff I got confidence that the stuff will play out the way it is."
Turner has averages of 20.0/9.2/6.0/35.6 despite missing six games with a broken bone in his lower back. His 34.4 percentage of possessions ranks fifth in the nation and he is ninth in assist rate (37.6), 50th in defensive rebounding percentage (24.6) and 88th in percentage of shots (30.3).
Ohio State (29-7) faces Tennessee (27-8) in the other Midwest Regional semifinal tonight and, for all the personal accolades, Turner would like to top off the season with a national championship.
"As a unit, we're definitely trying to make a Final Four run," Turner said. "I think we've prepared for it and I'm not really surprised with the way we're playing. I'm just happy that we all stuck together and bought into the commitment."
As the Coaching World Turns
The latest from the coaching rumor mill:
- Oregon has interviewed four unidentified candidates but Gonzaga coach Mark Few, an Oregon alum, is still considered the frontrunner. However, Brigham Young's Dave Rose is said to be in the mix.
- Two other names have surfaced as possibilities at Iowa in Dayton's Brian Gregory and Tulsa's Doug Wojcik to go along with Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, Utah's Jim Boylen and Tennessee assistant Steve Forbes.
- DePaul has come to the realization that is not going to land a big-name coach like UCLA's Ben Howland or Pittsburgh's Ben Howland and is said to now be zeroed in on Butler's Brad Stevens and Siena's Fran McCaffrey.
- St. John's is going back to the drawing board after being rejected by Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt and is said to have McCaffrey on its list along with Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg, Cornell's Steve Donahue and Harvard's Tommy Amaker.
- Seton Hall will interview Iona's Kevin Willard today as he becomes the fourth candidate to meet with the administration along with McCaffrey, Robert Morris' Mike Rice and Vermont's Pete Lonergan.
- UTEP is looking for a coach after Tony Barbee officially took the Auburn job Thursday and Sam Houston State's Bob Marlin is said to be the top candidate.
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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