March 18, 2007

Round Two: Oregon vs. Winthrop

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) -- A little white lie and a pot full of random luck has Craig Bradshaw starring in the feel-good story of this NCAA tournament.

Tiny Winthrop and Bradshaw, the 11th-seeded Eagles' big man from New Zealand, have already taken down Notre Dame. Next up is third-seeded Oregon on Sunday in the second round of the Midwest Regional.

The only thing more unlikely than Winthrop playing for a spot in the round of 16 is how Bradshaw ended up in South Carolina playing for the Eagles in the first place.

First, Bradshaw's parents didn't know he was detouring to basketball practice in the afternoon before playing rugby in the evening as a teen in New Zealand.

"My Dad thought basketball was a sissy sport," Bradshaw said, smiling Saturday knowing Robert Bradshaw, like most Kiwi fathers, wanted his son to become a member of the famed national rugby team, the "All Blacks."

To get to Winthrop, it took a college professor named John Watson -- whom Bradshaw didn't even know -- sending a social-league game tape of him from New Zealand to the South Carolina school of 6,600 students. Bradshaw, of course, had never heard of Winthrop.

Plus, he says the only reason he's still at Winthrop is because the Eagles (29-4) wouldn't let the gifted 6-foot-10 center leave.

"He's something we haven't seen before," Oregon coach Ernie Kent said of Bradshaw, who has played in the Olympics and in the World Championships for his native country, against Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Yao Ming.

Much of the pregame attention is on these teams featuring more guards than Fort Knox. All-Pac-10 point guard Aaron Brooks leads a four-guard offense for Oregon (27-7) against Winthrop's trio of Torrell Martin, Michael Jenkins and Chris Gaynor.

But just as he was Friday in Winthrop's first-round win over Notre Dame, Bradshaw will be the tallest player on the floor most of the game -- unless Kent wants to counter with 6-10 bruiser Mitch Platt or 7-footer Ray Schafer for more than the seven and six minutes per game each averages.

Since he probably won't, Maarty Leunen will be the man contending most with this Bradshaw. And Leunen, 6-9, is much more comfortable outside.

"He's definitely big. And he can definitely shoot," Leunen said. "I'll try to take him out on the perimeter, just to take him out of the middle."

Smaller Notre Dame tried that. But Bradshaw ditched his usual, 3-point game and moved wherever he pleased inside, scoring 16 of his 24 points in the second half of the Eagles' 74-64 win.

"That's unusual for a mid-major to have a talent like that," Kent said.

Kent doesn't even know how unusual.

That tape that Professor Watson sent as if from heaven to Rock Hill, S.C.? It was in an international format that wasn't compatible with anything on campus. So Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall sent an assistant across the state line to Charlotte, N.C., to get it converted into a format the Eagles could see.

Boy, were they shocked when they got a look at Bradshaw.

"He was long. He had post moves. He could dunk with either hand. He could shoot the international 3," Marshall recalled. "I turned to my wife and said, "We might be on to something here."

But after Marshall said "we had to jump through blazing rings of fire to get the school to approve him as an international transfer," Bradshaw played in 27 games and averaged just 2.3 points per game as a freshman.

"It was the toughest thing I've ever done," Bradshaw said of moving from the big city of Wellington, New Zealand, to tiny Rock Hill.

"The climate, the humidity. The food -- they fry everything down there, even bananas. ... I remember running the mile the first day of practice and throwing up. I was losing weight.

"It toughened me up."

So did the 2004 Olympics -- and especially his post-Olympics.

When Bradshaw got back to Winthrop, he was flooded with scholarship offers from what Marshall said were the most elite schools in the country. Bradshaw said Washington State -- 70 miles south of where Bradshaw is playing this weekend -- was one. Current Cougars coach Tony Bennett played and coached professionally in New Zealand.

Dazzled by enhancing his NBA prospects at a bigger, "name" school, Bradshaw said he asked Winthrop for a release from his scholarship. He said that the school rejected his request.

Marshall, who Bradshaw says is a "great" coach and motivator who "knows how to push the buttons of some players," sort of denies this.

"I don't know that he formally asked" for his release," Marshall said.

"He was tampered with (by schools) after the Olympics," the coach added, declining to name names.

"They were telling him, 'You can't reach the NBA at Winthrop. You can't reach your goals in Winthrop.' They were wrong.

"Here we are, still in the NCAA tournament. And a lot of those schools are not. The San Antonio Spurs, they have been at our practices seven times in the last two years. And he's getting his (finance) degree. On time."

Sunday, Bradshaw has his chance to lead Winthrop to its 20th consecutive win and extend his wacky story within this wild, Eagles ride.

"Not many people from New Zealand get to play on a stage like this," he said.

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