(photo credit: )
It happens every year, and it makes every NCAA hoops fan want to shred his office-pool bracket to pieces. The 12 seed knocks off the five, or the unknown Cinderella 10-seed makes a run to the Sweet 16.
The 2002 NCAA tournament was no exception, as the University of Wyoming Cowboys, seeded 11th, faced recent perennial fan-favorite and national power, the sixth-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs, in the first round.
Gonzaga finished the regular season ranked sixth in the Associated Press poll, but the selection committee thought that the Bulldogs' body of work merited just the six seed in the West Region.
Wyoming was an anomaly to most pundits and fans. Barely any of its games were televised nationally, and the Cowboys are part of the Mountain West Conference, not a traditional powerhouse. They got into the tournament via an at-large bid and were not expected to do much damage.
The Cowboys almost didn't even make the tournament to begin with. After winning their conference's regular season title, Wyoming lost in the conference tournament, failing to wrap up the conference's automatic bid, which instead went to San Diego State University. The Cowboys had to sweat it out on Selection Sunday, and were awarded the final at-large bid in the tournament.
It was assumed that Gonzaga would win easily over a Wyoming team that, supposedly, had no chance.
However, the Cowboys, led by current Hapoel Galil Elyon-Golan center Uche Nsonwu and Givat Shmuel guard Jason Straight, shocked the college basketball world by knocking off the favorites in Albuquerque, New Mexico, 73-66.
"We had a great year, but on Selection Sunday we were the very last team to be called," Straight said. "Imagine sitting in that locker room, just 20 guys, the very last team being flipped over. At that moment we knew we had to do something special."
Nsonwu felt the same way. "We took that excitement to the game," he said. "Every article was written about Gonzaga. Going into that game we didn't have anything to lose, because nobody was giving us a chance. There was no pressure. We just we0 0nt out there and played. We were loose, and that was the key to that game."
Nsonwu scored a team-high 14 points and grabbed six rebounds to help lead his team to the improbable victory.
"I was just playing my role on the team, doing what I did all season," Nsonwu said. "We were happy to be there. We just wanted to win the first game we played. Most times you'll lose the first game because you're looking ahead. We just wanted to give a good showing."
Straight and backcourt mate Donta Richardson played intense defense, holding Gonzaga's star guards Dan Dickau and Blake Stepp to a combined 8-of-37 shooting from the field.
"Our objective was to stop those guys," Straight said. "The type of season Dickau was having was unbelievable. It got to the point where everybody on the West Coast wanted to have their hair style like his. It was a big task for me and Donta, but we did a great job.
"It was about effort, who wanted it the most. That's the way the game of basketball is. Everybody is so talented, it's all about who's going to man up and go out there and compete."
Straight, just a freshman at the time, manned up all he could to contain Stepp, who in 2004 would become a second-team All-American and currently plays for Pamesa Valencia in Spain, and Dickau, who became a first-round selection in the NBA Draft the following June. Straight also added six points and seven assists in the win - Wyoming's first in the NCAA tournament since 1987.
"It was overwhelming, because as a freshman you don't expect that type of atmosphere," Straight said. "College basketball in America is huge so it was a great atmosphere, almost equivalent to the Euroleague Final Four.
"When the NCAA sends a private plane to your small town and you've got thousands of fans staying at your hotel, you know you've reached the NCAA tournament. You know right there that no team is any better than any other team. You feel like you have a chance every game. It was amazing."
The atmosphere of playing as the underdog captivated Nsonwu, as well.
"The adrenaline from playing out there is great," he said. "The crowd, the fans, the level of basketball, everything is just taken up a notch. It was really exciting."
What Wyoming accomplished in 2002 is what so many smaller, lesser-known schools have done over the years. The Cowboys galvanized an entire state and region, giving the fans a reason to believe.
Nsonwu felt proud to bring his fans a victory of such magnitude. "Being the first team to [win a tournament game] in a bunch of years was a way to give back to the fans and the people of Wyoming for all their gratitude to the team and to give them hope for the future," Nsonwu said.
Straight echoed those sentiments, glowing with pride.
"Everybody kept saying we didn't have a chance and that Gonzaga might go to the Final Four that year," Straight recalled. "After the game I remember how good I felt as a person and as a player. I felt appreciated as player at Wyoming. I felt really proud of myself and for the people of Wyoming. To have so many people just believe in what you're doing is just tremendous."
Wyoming fell in the second round to the third-seeded Arizona Wildcats, but went down fighting, 68-60. Nsonwu said that the Cowboys, like most heavy underdogs in the tournament, played that game with the same loose, no pressure mentality that they did in the first round.
"Some of the people that didn't believe started to believe," Nsonwu said. "If we can beat Gonzaga, we can beat anybody. We're already there, so let's go out there and give it a shot again."
Straight scored 12 points in the loss to Arizona, which featured Ramat Gan guard Jason Gardner. Nsonwu added 10 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, but it wasn't enough to sustain Wyoming's tournament magic.
The two Wyoming teammates-turned-BSL-stars have kept in touch and are close friends, in part due to the bond from that game. They call each other after games each week to see how the other is doing.
"Gonzaga were giants at the time, and there are only like 20 guys in that locker room that honestly believe you're going to win. When you defeat all those odds and go on and win that's unbelievable," Straight said. "That's the tournament for you. Every year it's like that. That's what's so great about March."
So before overanalyzing each match-up down to which team's towel boy is in better shape, be wary of the Utah States, the Bradleys and the Northern Iowas of this year's tournament field, because as Nsonwu and Straight have proven, something unforeseen will happen to once again give new meaning to the term March Madness.
After an upset by a school that nobody thinks has a shot to win, it's commonplace for fans to jump on the bandwagon and adopt that team as his or her own.
It's one thing to have the believers follow after a big upset, but entering the first-round game against Gonzaga, Straight, Nsonwu and their teammates were among the vast minority that believed Wyoming had a legitimate chance to pull the shocker.
"It's an empty feeling," Straight said.