Samford's stock on the rise

March, 17, 2011

Mike Morris knows the routine.

He calls a recruit and identifies himself as the head coach at Samford, and occasionally there's a pause.

"They get all excited when they think it's Stanford," Morris said, laughing. "I kid around and I've said I always wanted to ask [Stanford coach] Tara VanDerveer, 'Do y'all get that, are you Stanford or Samford?' just to see if I get a grin out of that."

Morris has been the coach at Stamford, in Birmingham, Ala., for the last nine years, and, like his counterpart at Stanford, his team has made the NCAA women's basketball tournament.

But this is the first NCAA berth for the Bulldogs (25-7), who earned an automatic bid by winning the Southern Conference championship, beating top-seeded Appalachian State 57-54.

Samford, a No. 14 seed, will face No. 3 Florida State (23-7) in Auburn, Ala., in a first-round game Sunday (ESPN2, 4 p.m. ET). A year ago, the Bulldogs made the WNIT and won their first-round game.

For a Division I program that has been in existence 14 years and has moved around three conferences -- the Atlantic Sun to the Ohio Valley to the Southern -- during that time, finally making the tournament has given Samford, a private school of nearly 3,000 undergraduates, an enormous boost.

"The committee did a great job keeping us and Connecticut in opposite sides of the bracket, so we won't have to meet until the championship game," Morris said, tongue firmly in cheek. "This definitely puts our program on the national stage, at least for a couple of weeks."

Emily London, the team's leading scorer averaging 16.3 points and also the country's leader in free throw percentage (.934), said the excitement of making the tournament passed quickly.

The Bulldogs, who led the Southern Conference in most defensive categories, make their offensive noise with 3-point shooting and rank among the nation's top five in 3-point field goal percentage (.400) and in 3-pointers per game (8.3 average), are very much tuned into the task at hand.

"Definitely, we're excited to be put in this position to play in the NCAA tournament, but at the same time, there's work to be done," London said. "We're trying not to think about it as a job; we're trying to look at it as a fun opportunity. Nobody at Samford has been in this situation.

"We've been the underdogs for so long we're kind of used to it. We're not taking this lightly. We've heard ESPN, we've heard the news and all the hype about the higher seed, but we can give them a run for their money. We're going to play hard."

Students haven't been on Samford's campus this week because of spring break, but the community and the Bulldogs' baseball and softball teams came out to support the team during the selection show on Monday. London concedes that the team's recent notoriety has made her a bit of a local celebrity, with people she's never met coming up and introducing themselves.

The Bulldogs feel they've been dealt a bit of a break playing the opening rounds in Auburn, about a two-hour drive, and a school official indicated ticket sales have been brisk.

With Samford drawing its first NCAA tournament bid and having appeared on regional television during the Southern Conference tournament and now on ESPN2 this weekend, clearly the moment is about now, but it's also about the future.

What can this tournament appearance mean for Samford down the road?

"It's always great for your program to get that berth in the NCAA tournament," said ESPN women's basketball analyst Carolyn Peck. "For Samford to win the Southern Conference and get that opportunity, it's a great experience for your players and the coach, and it also helps your program in recruiting, as well, and brings attention to other places in your conference."

Morris said appearing on television during last season's conference tournament helped, and he imagines this season's success will enhance Samford's recruiting.

"I hope so, just being more visible," he said. "It will help. Samford is a private school, and from a national perspective this adds credibility, like, 'Well, they've got good basketball, too.' We haven't had to convince them as much that we have a good program, because they've seen us."

But the Bulldogs know it's not just about being seen.

It's cliche but true -- they enter the NCAA tournament saying they're not just happy to be there.

"That's the message I told our team Monday," Morris said. "I told them, 'You guys wanted to win our championship and hang a banner and go to the NCAA tournament -- well, we've done it. Well-deserved. Now, what impression do you want to leave? You're in and just happy to be here, or do you want to compete?'

"Florida State is good. They're big and they're long, which we're not, so we have to play very well. And we have to hope they're off their game a little bit."

Angelique S. Chengelis is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage.


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