Cal State Fullerton knows tough task ahead against Duke but hopes for Cinderella run
No one at Cal State Fullerton was talking about legacies or last rides around this time last month.
The Titans were just a collection of transfers and disparate parts then, still trying to find their way. They’d just been embarrassed on national TV during a rudderless road loss to Hawaii, and their season stood at a mid-February crossroads. That’s when Dedrique Taylor challenged his team to take a long look in the mirror.
Many were seniors, entering the final stretch of their college careers. Now, he said, was the time to figure out what mark they planned to leave. Were they contenders, he asked, or pretenders?
It was that question, posed from the visiting locker room in Honolulu, that would help spark a sensational, unexpected run through the Big West tournament, earning Fullerton its fourth NCAA tournament bid and a date Friday at 4:10 p.m. with second-seeded Duke and its legendary coach, Mike Krzyzewski, whose legacy has been the biggest story in college basketball this season.
That spotlight will burn as bright as ever for Krzyzewski on Friday, as the winningest coach in college basketball history embarks on his final NCAA tournament run after 47 seasons, five national titles and nearly 1,200 wins. For Duke, that legacy has loomed especially large as of late, as the Blue Devils lost two of their last four, including Krzyzewski’s final home game at Cameron Indoor.
While Duke and its fleet of star freshmen are sure to feel that weight Friday, there will be no such pressure on Fullerton, which enters the tournament brimming with as much experience and confidence as any potential Cinderella in the bracket.
Here’s a roundup of Thursday’s first-round NCAA men’s basketball tournament games.
“It won’t be easy,” Taylor said. “The task will be hard. I just want our group to focus on playing hard, competing and doing what has got them to this point. Trust me, it’s plenty good enough. The rest of the world probably doesn’t think so, and that’s awesome. Nobody ever said we could do anything anyway. Our own conference, they picked us seventh or eighth, so who cares?”
Very few have picked Fullerton to advance Friday, either, on account of the fact that Duke boasts three possible NBA lottery picks in their lineup, including potential No. 1 overall choice Paolo Banchero. But while the Blue Devils have a major advantage in size and athleticism, the Titans are counting on their combined experience to help carry them to an upset.
“Duke is a super, super talented group, but they’re inexperienced,” Fullerton guard Damari Milsted said. “They have a lot of good talent, but I think our maturity and poise and just our togetherness as a program and how long we’ve been together are some things we can really exploit.”
It didn’t always seem that way. The Titans’ two leading scorers, Milsted and E.J. Anosike, were transfers from San Francisco and Tennessee, respectively, and as such, it took a while for Fullerton’s lineup to mesh.
The Titans opened the season 4-6, leaving Taylor to wonder about where his team was heading. They went 16-5 from there, as Anosike led the Big West in scoring (16.5 points per game).
“I was not sure,” Taylor said. “Hell, I didn’t even want to go to practice the next day with this group and I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. But we’ve endured those things and we’ve gotten through that. For me, it just makes me smile to be able to tell this group we have accomplished something that no other group will ever be able to do in my opinion.”
USC coach Andy Enfield has the numbers to prove why the Trojans are more than just a tournament sleeper. His players believe USC deserves more respect.
With just one more win, Fullerton would certainly cement that legacy, while playing spoiler to another.
“There’s a lot of people that are doubting us right now,” guard Tray Maddox Jr. said. “We know what’s at stake. We just go into the game, not thinking about whose last ride it is. We just go in and play basketball because at the end of the day it’s just basketball.”
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