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Guards in spotlight as Boise State, La Salle duel

March 19, 2013

DAYTON, Ohio (AP) — Guard Tyreek Duren walked into his business finance class, expecting to slide unobtrusively into his usual seat.

Uh-uh. Not a chance.

La Salle received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament on Sunday, a breakthrough for a school that’s been through an entire generation of players and one major scandal since the last time it could celebrate. It was still a big thing on the Philadelphia campus a day later.

“When I walked in class, they gave me a standing ovation,” Duren said. “My teacher was happy. Every class I went to they were saying how excited they were to finally have La Salle back in the tournament.”

The First Four is a place to celebrate those long-awaited breakthroughs. The Explorers (21-9) made it for the first time in 21 years, getting a chance to play Boise State (21-10) in the wrap-up of the First Four on Wednesday night.

The Broncos are celebrating their first at-large bid in school history, a sign that their program is getting noticed on its own. Boise State’s five previous NCAA appearances came from automatic bids by winning the Big Sky and Western Athletic Conference tournaments. This one came solely on merit.

While defending champion Kentucky from the Bluegrass state missed out, the small school with the blue fake-grass football field made it.

“It’s a big deal,” guard Derrick Marks said. “It’s the first time in school history that it’s happened. It’s something special we’ve got going on. We’ve just got to do whatever we got to do to just keep it going.”

They weren’t the only ones with an eye on their history in Dayton. Middle Tennessee faced Saint Mary’s on Tuesday night, making its first NCAA tournament appearance in 24 years. None of the Blue Raiders was born the last time they made it.

The 21-year gap for La Salle included a very painful interlude. Three players were charged with rape in 2004, and both the men’s and women’s basketball coaches were fired. John Giannini arrived to start digging the program out of its scandal and years of losing.

At La Salle, it’s finally time to stand and cheer.

“It’s been a big thing, especially because it’s been so long since we’ve been to the tournament,” Duren said. “As a far as the La Salle community, I think it’s very big for them since they finally get to see La Salle back in the tournament.”

March also is a time for guards to grab the spotlight and lead their teams deep into the tournament. There will be plenty of possibilities when the Explorers and Broncos line up for introductions on Wednesday night.

Both teams use four-guard offenses, a highly unusual approach these days. Normally, teams that meet in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament have little history against one another and are hard-pressed to prepare detailed scouting reports in their limited time.

No problems for these two teams, which have never played but feel like they’re nearly one and the same.

“First, both teams are really, really reliant on all our guards,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “We play a lot of guards. We play four at a time. In our last game, we played five guards. They’re very similar that way.

“There’s not that many teams that play that small like both of us, and both of us have had success with it.”

In a sense, their game will be a bit like one of their practices, when there’s a lot of guard-vs.-guard defense going on. This one could well come down to which one is more on guard.

“They’re a quick team and they play similar to us,” Boise State guard Derrick Marks said. “I mean, we guard it every day in practice.”


Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay

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