NDSU, Harvard only need to be better once

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Basketball teams look at the season one step at a time, and when it comes to the postseason, those steps become more of a crawl. Forty minutes at a time, each team tries to extend its season another day or two.

The recruits, the previous season, the conference tournament, that one win or one loss don’t matter. It’s 40 minutes to decide not necessarily the better of the two teams, but the one that advances, the one that lives another day.

So Harvard coach Tommy Amaker and North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips aren’t putting together game plans that completely change their respective system or team. They don’t need to find the answer for how to compete in a different conference or league. They both just need to answer one question: Could their teams be better for 40 minutes on Saturday in Spokane? Could their team be better than a team that most believe is better?

Maybe nine times out of 10 Michigan State would dominate Harvard or San Diego State would destroy North Dakota State, but could Saturday be that one time when they don’t?

Cinderellas need only to be better on one singular night. Sixty or 70 possessions determine fates and end careers. All that matters is who shows up.

"The excitement about this tournament is that you just have to be better that day," Amaker said. "That’s the interesting part about it."

Generally, every season there’s at least one 12-seed that finds a way to upset a 5-seed in the round of 64 of the NCAA tournament. But on Thursday in Spokane, 12th-seeded Harvard took care of business against fifth-seeded Cincinnati, then fellow No. 12 seed North Dakota State took down fifth-seed Oklahoma in overtime later that day.

On Saturday, NDSU faces San Diego State at 6:10 p.m. ET, then Harvard plays Michigan State at 8:40 p.m.

"There are so many good teams in the tournament," Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said after NDSU’s upset. "The depth and the quality of depth is, I think, as good as it has ever been. Cincinnati-Harvard, it looked like a close ballgame. Ours was a close ballgame. Not much difference in those ballclubs."

The difference is seven seeds, which, when there are only 16 total seeds in each region, seems like a whole lot. But with Mercer beating Duke, Dayton beating Ohio State and the story of Florida Gulf Coast last season, the gap between blue-chip recruits and the players with chips on their shoulders is getting smaller and smaller.

"I think the quote-unquote mid-majors, that gap is slowly closing," Harvard guard Brandyn Curry said. "As you can see, these upsets are happening more and more often. I think it’s because the talent around America is just getting better, and these players are going to decide to be different and go to different institutions."

That’s certainly part of it. With more AAU teams and development leagues, there’s a greater pool for college coaches to choose from. There are more and more players with plenty of potential who might not be seen by John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski but can still become productive college players.

But another benefit of the mid-majors is that players plan to stay for four years. Amaker doesn’t have to worry about one of his guys leaving early. Phillips doesn’t have to rebuild his chemistry every season.

Experience and team chemistry can trump singular talent, and during March Madness, like Amaker said, it just has to happen once. Michigan State could possibly beat Harvard nine times out of 10, or maybe 99 times out of 100, but it wants that one time to be when the teams take the floor on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Michigan State and San Diego State will work for Saturday to be the 90 percent instead of the 10. There’s more than enough motivation -- the Spartans’ senior group has never been to a Final Four, the first senior class under Tom Izzo to not accomplish that feat, while San Diego State was one of Florida Gulf Coast’s victims last season.

They understand the survive-and-advance, lose-and-go-home operation and know how dangerous a team on the rise is. An underdog is one thing. The stadium or nation gets behind them and the Crimson and Bison can feel the support they’re getting from basketball fans.

"It’s March Madness at its best," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "NCAA basketball, expect the unexpected, and everyone who’s not a fan of that top seed is praying that it will be a close game and that the low seed will hit a basket at the buzzer to win the game."

Fisher knows the fans might be stacked against him and Izzo. He’s just hoping the cards aren’t as well.