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Stephen F. Austin’s Cinderella journey started well before Friday’s upset win

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The Cinderella story is a pretty bad one if you start it at the big dance. Stephen F. Austin's win over West Virginia was just the culmination of years of fighting uphill to become an incredible team in a league you don't recognize.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin upset No. 3 West Virginia by playing West Virginia's preferred style of play. But Lumberjack guard Jared Johnson would prefer you not describe it that way.

"I wouldn't say we out-West Virginia-ed West Virginia," Johnson said. "I'd say we out-SFA-ed them."

But what does it mean to out-SFA somebody? You probably have no clue. Even SFA's opponents seemed to have no idea what they were up against.

"We just didn't take it serious," Mountaineer forward Devin Williams said. "That's what happens in this tournament when you don't take people serious."

Normally, this is the type of comment that might infuriate an opponent. But SFA guard Clide Geffrard understands.

"I didn't take no harm to it," Geffrard said. "Because, before I came, I didn't know who SFA is. So I said the same thing he was saying. 'Stephen A.?'"

The darlings of March Madness are supposed to arrive completely anonymously. They're supposed to come from places you've never heard of. SFA is from Nacogdoches, Texas. ("New York is too fast for me," says guard Demetrious Floyd, whose favorite thing about "Nac" is the crawfish.) They're supposed to have silly and unfamiliar mascots. The Lumberjacks! You're not supposed to know that Nacogdoches is deep in the piney woods of East Texas, or that they have a nationally recognized forestry department, or that their mascot is actually a very strong man wearing flannel and carrying an axe. They're supposed to have names you've never heard, prompting your jokes about the beer-chugging wrestler and the angry guy from the garbage ESPN show.

Unfortunately for West Virginia, Stephen F. Austin was a pretty stupid team for West Virginia to not take seriously.

The Lumberjacks dominated the Southland Conference like a bored teenager playing an NBA video game on rookie mode. Since 2014, they've gone 59-1 in Southland regular season and tournament play. This year, they went undefeated, winning twice as many games by 20 (13) as they did by single digits (five). And just two years ago, they showed up in March and ruined a VCU team that ran a full-court press just like West Virginia.

SFA's win over West Virginia did not play out like a freak upset. It wasn't the result of a few lucky shots, a crazy buzzer-beater or a bad stylistic matchup. The Lumberjacks legitimately beat the hell out of the Mountaineers at their own game. If anything, SFA should have won by more, as they had an uncharacteristically bad shooting night.

The Mountaineers led the nation in steals this season, with 9.94 per game. The Jacks recorded 16 Friday night. The Mountaineers thrived on points off turnovers this season. SFA outscored West Virginia 29-4 off turnovers. SFA coach Brad Underwood told his team he hoped to have fewer than 12 turnovers against Bob Huggins' full-court press. The Jacks had just seven.

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The story of Stephen F. Austin's upset over West Virginia didn't begin Friday in Brooklyn. It began in Manhattan -- well, a Manhattan -- about 10 years ago. Bob Huggins was starting his first (and only) year as head coach of Kansas State, and decided he had to fill out his staff with a Wildcat alum. He turned to Brad Underwood, a 30-year-old working at a community college in Florida.

Watching the two teams play, there are undertones of Huggins in Underwood. They both sell out on every defensive possession to force turnovers, with SFA and WVU finishing first and second out of the 351 teams in college basketball in turnover rate, respectively.

So Underwood knew the battle he was facing. He had to beat a team that played the same game as his team.

"Working for Bob Huggins, I know how hard his team practices," Underwood said. "That was our challenge to be better than them in that area."

In preparing for Friday's game, Underwood had his squad practice the press break against seven defenders. That approach doesn't just simulate the Mountaineers' intensity. It also put into practice the different caliber of player each program can recruit.

Stephen F. Austin does not get good enough to beat West Virginia by landing higher-ranked players in the recruiting cycle. Nobody with an offer from West Virginia is going to listen to the Southland champs. Instead, SFA improved to beat West Virginia by building better players.

Nobody banged on doors recruiting Thomas Walkup. He had no interest from major Division I conference schools; his offers were from a lot of Division II programs. Looking in the rear-view mirror, it's easy to see why. He was a stringy 6'4 kid who couldn't even shoot free throws well.

Walkup is still 6'4, but everything else about him has changed. He was clean-shaven as a freshman. Now he sports a bushy beard that makes him look like the school's lumberjack mascot. ("I'm kind of superstitious," he says while explaining why he's had the beard since November.) He's added 30 pounds since coming to SFA, and he does pretty much everything the Jacks need him to do.

"He's one of the most resourceful, efficient players," Underwood said. "He's our school's all-time leading rebounder. He led us in assists. He led us in steals. His best position is the point because he's such a good passer. And as basketball IQs go, there's no one. I'll put him against anybody."

Walkup poured in 33 on West Virginia, all while guarding pretty much everybody on the floor at some point. Once a 60 percent free throw shooter, he hit 19 of 20 from the charity stripe.

Walkup's most important role, though, might be as the person who consistently calmed SFA's frantic, frazzled press break. I'd be lying if I said SFA looked in control against the country's best full-court press. Everybody had to handle the ball in the all-hands-on-deck chaos -- on one play, 6'7, 240-pound forward C.J. Williams beat the pressure by crossing over a defender and dribbling the ball across half court himself. The ball skittered and bobbled around, often out of control among multiple Mountaineers 50 feet from the basket.

But no matter how Walkup got the ball, he put the team in a better position by the time it left his hands. He finished with a team-high four assists and was one of three Jacks with four steals, yet had just two turnovers. He was the best player on the floor and will probably continue to be so as long as the Jacks are in the tournament.

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The story of Cinderella is actually a pretty crappy one if you start it at the big dance. You kinda need to know the backstory. You kinda need to know about the hours of backbreaking work and ugly stepsisters.

For the teams in March Madness to show up and upset somebody, they have to face the equivalent of a 7-on-5 full-court press before you've ever heard of them. They have to work uphill to become great in places where they're not supposed to become great. SFA and schools like them have managed to pull it off.

The early rounds of the NCAA Tournament proved that mid- and low-major conference teams with strong records are perfectly capable of beating power conference teams with good records in games on a neutral floor. One upset is a fluke. We've had half a dozen.

And yet, the NCAA selection committee doesn't seem to care. Despite a perfect conference schedule, SFA earned a 14-seed, indicating they wouldn't have received an at-large bid if they lost their conference tournament.

Luckily, the Jacks won their tournament, but several strong mid-major teams did lose. The NCAA almost uniformly locked them out, giving 35 of 36 at-large bids to the Power 5, A-10, American and Big East. They justified this by pointing to all the "bad losses" small-league teams had.

Well, of course they had bad losses. Small-league teams actually have to play bad teams on the road. Major conference teams rarely even agree to play teams they could hypothetically lose to at neutral sites. If they win, nobody cares. If they lose, they potentially harm their own tourney résumé.

Stephen F. Austin tried to schedule major conference opponents to boost their résumé. The only Division I opponent they convinced to come to Nacogdoches was Texas Southern of the lowly SWAC.

"[Coach Underwood] was trying to get me to play him," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey when asked what he knew about his team's next opponent. "I said no way."

He has good reason for wanting to avoid SFA. The Jacks are ranked 24th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings. His Fighting Irish from the ACC are ranked 40th. Yet the Fighting Irish earned a No. 6 seed while SFA was relegated to a No. 14.

We like to picture early-round NCAA Tournament upsets as the real-life version of The Tortoise and the Hare. We love picturing a scrappy underdog beating a lazy favorite. But it's not really applicable, and not just because the Maryland Terrapins were favored against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits.

Stephen F. Austin is not a freakin' tortoise. Tortoises are slow and bad at racing. The Lumberjacks are a great basketball team, as good as, if not better than West Virginia. After all, they just walloped West Virginia at West Virginia's game.

Acknowledging that teams like Stephen F. Austin are legitimately great doesn't take away from the upset. It's easy to appreciate the incredible work required to become great at schools that aren't supposed to be great.

However, if you'd like to ignore that work, please go ahead. It just makes it easier for teams like West Virginia to not take them seriously.

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Total Madness: The 1st round was absolutely bonkers

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