Come around the team this time of the year and you might hear a different kind of basketball being brought up in conversation. You might see teammates talking trash to each other while some of them are glued to the television monitors in the locker room.
It is March Madness.
Of the 16 players on the Mavs roster, 12 of them played collegiate ball before entering the NBA. With some of the younger guys like Jalen Brunson and Justin Jackson appearing in more recent NCAA Tournaments, I wanted to chat with some of the veterans on the team on their NCAA Tournament runs, the stage of March Madness and more.
Coming down from Indianapolis, Ind., Courtney Lee moved to the smaller city of Bowling Green, Ky. Bowling Green was quite different from Indianapolis, but a city that Lee grew to love over time.
“It was a growing experience for me,” Lee said on his time in college. “I went from a boy to a man.”
Lee would step right into a starting role is freshman season and never look back. In fact, Lee would start in all 127 games he played as a member of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. For Lee, his first three years in college weren’t easy as his team kept fighting, but couldn’t quite get over the hump of making it into the big dance.
“We never made it to the NCAA Tournament,” Lee said when looking back at those first three years. “Got close and didn’t make it. That (last) year we made it, so we went out with a bang.”
“That year” that Lee is referring to was his senior season at Western Kentucky. Lee was the Sun Belt Player of the Year that year after averaging more than 20 points a game. He would help lead the Hilltoppers to 29-7 record and a 12-seed in the tournament. All of their hard work for the past three years finally led to a berth.
Up first was a 5-seed in Drake. For Western Kentucky to pull off the massive upset, it would take a special performance from the Hilltoppers. Down three, with under 10 seconds to go, it was their turn to cement themselves into the one shining moment montage.
“They put two on me,” Lee said as he recounted the play. “Brazelton pushed the ball and made the right play. Found Ty and knocked it down.”
“My man Ty Rogers hit that big 3 against Drake. We beat them and advanced,” Lee said. “It was crazy man.”
It was a Cinderella moment that would go down in NCAA history. But as much as Lee and the Hilltoppers were excited about the first-round upset, a matchup with San Diego in the second round was looming right around the corner. And after a win in the second round, Western Kentucky was headed to the Sweet Sixteen to face a loaded UCLA team.
“We went up against UCLA and gave them a run for their money,” Lee said. “But they had a little too much starpower.”
Starpower was an understatement for the top-seeded UCLA Bruins. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love headlined the team with future pros like Darren Collison and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute as their role players. UCLA would win by 10.
“We were fighting to the end together,” Lee said. “That was really the first time I had played in an atmosphere like that.”
It was a brotherhood for Lee and the guys on that Western Kentucky team, and the group still keeps in contact to this day.
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For Dwight Powell, getting to the NCAA Tournament was something he worked his entire college career for. Powell would start in 24 of his 31 games played during his freshman year at Stanford, but failed to reach the tournament. In his sophomore year, Powell would help lead the Cardinal to 26 wins, but they would once again miss the tournament. After missing the dance for a third straight time as a junior, his teammates were determined to make the NCAA Tournament in the seniors’ last run.
“We fought hard for three or four years to try and make a name for ourselves and prove that we could compete at the highest level,” Powell said.” It took us until our senior year to get there, but it was a big moment to share with those guys.”
In his 2013-14 senior season, Stanford would go 23-12 and be the 10th seed in the South region. They would upset a 7th-seeded New Mexico team in the first round and face off with the No. 2 Kansas team that has headlined by Andrew Wiggins.
“It was a huge moment,” Powell said. “We were underdogs and went in there and played against a guy I had played with growing up in Andrew. Knowing they had a great team and a great year. We went in there and played with everything we had knowing it could be our last game.”
Kansas had the eventual No. 1 overall pick in Andrew Wiggins to go with future professionals in Tarik Black, Perry Ellis, and Frank Mason. On Powell’s Stanford team, he would be joined by future professionals in Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, and Josh Huestis.
Powell would lead Stanford in scoring with 15 points as they would upset the loaded Kansas team to head to the Sweet Sixteen. They would eventually lose to Dayton, but Powell will never forget the bright lights of the Big Dance.
“That is the biggest stage there is for a college basketball player,” Powell said. “The atmosphere in college is very different. It’s hard to really describe. At that age you haven’t played in those situations yet. To get put on that stage, you are really competing for your life as a college player especially for the seniors. It is lose or go home. And for some of those guys it is going all the way home. There’s no more basketball for them.”
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For the 35-year-old Devin Harris, it was 17 years ago when Harris took the court for Wisconsin as a freshman. Starting in all 32 games during his freshman season, Harris helped lead Wisconsin to a 11-5 record and an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
After beating St. Johns in the first round, Harris and Wisconsin would then face off against the top seed in Maryland in the second round.
“The first year we lost to the eventual National Champions at the time in Maryland,” Harris said. Future NBA players Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, and Chris Wilcox would lead Maryland to the National Championship.
Harris’s sophomore year would provide the biggest moment of his collegiate career. After earning a No. 5 seed in the Tournament, Wisconsin would face Tulsa in the second round. Down two with under 10 seconds left, Harris brought the ball up the court.
“It was one of those NCAA magic moments with a game-winning shot,” Harris said. “I made the assist. We came back from being down eight.”
Harris drove across the paint to hit a wide-open Freddie Owens for a three pointer that would win the game. Wisconsin was headed to the Sweet Sixteen.
“The sweet sixteen was in the Minnesota dome with tons of people,” Harris noted. “Great atmosphere and great game.” Wisconsin would face off against a Kentucky team headlined by Keith Bogans and Chuck Hayes, but they would come up short. It would be the only time Harris would play in the Sweet Sixteen.
Harris would win the Big Ten Player of the Year award in his junior season and lead Wisconsin back to the tournament the next season. But in the second round of the tournament, Wisconsin would lose to Pittsburgh in what would be his final game in college.
Three months later, Harris would be drafted fifth overall in the 2004 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards and traded that same night to the Dallas Mavericks for Antawn Jamison.