SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Cinderella will be dressed in dark colors later today.
She’ll be carrying a double-digit seed, bringing a roster filled with non-scholarship overachievers, and carrying the flag of a small conference that hasn’t gone this deep in an NCAA tournament since 1979.
Cinderella will be just as obvious as she always is this time of year.
The East Region No. 13 seed Cornell Big Red of the brains-over-brawn Ivy League certainly fit the profile. But before they take the court for tonight’s game against top-seeded Kentucky, Cornell’s media darlings will watch a less conventional Cinderella team take the court at the Carrier Dome.
The Washington Huskies are an atypical version of the proverbial David, and they’re out to knock off another Goliath tonight. No. 11 seed UW (26-9) faces No. 2 seed and eighth-ranked West Virginia in an East Region semifinal with a chance to advance to the elite round of eight for the winner.
“Right now we know that, the way we’ve been playing basketball, we can play with anyone in the country — no matter what the media’s outlook on it is,” UW junior Matthew Bryan Amaning said of the Huskies’ role of giant-killer. “I know we were confident even though we were the underdogs in the last three games we played (wins over Cal, Marquette and New Mexico). … So we’ll just came out with the same amount of confidence we had in the past, and hopefully we’ll be able to get it done.”
Other than the Huskies’ seeding, these Dawgs aren’t your typical underdogs.
They come from a power conference in the Pac-10. They’ve been to five of the past seven NCAA tournaments. They were ranked 14th in the preseason national AP poll. Their starting lineup includes one McDonald’s All-American, another top-50 recruit and another guy who was the Washington state player of the year as a junior in high school.
“Hopefully not,” Bryan-Amaning said. “When people talk about a Cinderella, it’s not from a major conference. I know we had an up-and-down year, but this is where we were supposed to be all year.
“By calling us a Cinderella, it’s like they’re overlooking us. But I think this is where we thought we’d be.”
Still, the difference of nine seeding spots is fairly rare during the Sweet 16. Only that late game between No. 13 Cornell and No. 1 Kentucky has a bigger disparity in this week’s field.
The last time a team seeded nine or more spots lower than its opponent won a Sweet 16 game was 24 years ago — since then, 21 underdogs have gone by the wayside. The last underdog to even come close to winning a Sweet 16 game was the 1998 UW team, a No. 11 seed that lost 75-74 to second-seeded Connecticut.
And while a UW win today could go down as, seed-wise, the biggest Sweet 16 upset in more than two decades, not even the Huskies’ opponent sees Washington as the underdog.
“I kind of feel like they’re a better team than we are,” said West Virginia senior Da’Sean Butler, who wasn’t born yet when No. 11 seed LSU knocked off No. 2 Georgia Tech in the 1986 tournament. “So I kind of put the target on their backs. I don’t really look at any team as inferior to us.”
With nine consecutive wins under their belts, the Huskies are feeling as confident as any team still in the tournament. They certainly don’t feel like underdogs.
“Throughout this run, I think we have gained a lot of confidence,” UW senior Quincy Pondexter said, “because we’re starting to see us playing right. And when that happens, it just gets you anxious to play that next game and continue for (the tournament) to go on.”
If the Huskies have reason to feel like a big underdog, it might be based in geography. While the Cinderella kids from Cornell should have a huge backing tonight — the Ithaca, N.Y., school is about an hour’s drive from Syracuse — the Huskies should have only a spattering of fans after flying 2,700 miles to play their first East Coast game in almost 21/2 years.
And it’s been awhile since UW got a win in this time zone.
In his eight years as Huskies coach, Lorenzo Romar has never won a game east of the Mississippi River, having gone 0-4. The last time UW beat a team on the East Coast was in Nov. 1999, when Bob Bender’s Huskies won at Florida International.
This year’s Huskies certainly didn’t look jet-lagged on Wednesday afternoon.
“Sweet 16, there’s no time for excuses,” UW sophomore Isaiah Thomas said of the Huskies’ longest road trip since playing in the 2007 preseason NIT in New York City. “… We’re here now. We got that extra day in that we are just getting used to the time difference and getting ready for (tonight’s game). It really isn’t going to factor into what we’re doing.”
Only four current Huskies have ever played a college game on the East Coast, and none of them have ever played a game this deep into an NCAA tournament.
And yet this Cinderella team has the confidence to keep this run going.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say Cinderella,” Pondexter said. “But if they want to stick that label to us, that’s fine with us.”
It’s fine with most of the Huskies, anyway.
“We’re where we’re supposed to be,” junior Venoy Overton said, shrugging off the Cinderella label. “This ain’t no accident. We worked hard to get here.”