Everyone loves an upset.
Correctly picking a No. 12 or 13 seed to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament goes a long way in establishing bracket bragging rights.
But UW-Whitewater head men’s basketball coach Pat Miller will have an eye on a couple of those matchups for other reasons Thursday.
A pair of his former Warhawks colleagues—Buffalo head coach Nate Oats and South Dakota State head coach T.J. Otzelberger—will coach their teams in first-round games.
“Those guys were both very good basketball minds,” Miller said earlier this week. “They understood the game, were both very motivated, were both very smart. The way they conducted themselves, you knew they’d be successful in whatever it was they chose to do.”
South Dakota State is a No. 12 seed in the West Region and will play fifth-seeded Ohio State at approximately 3 p.m. Thursday.
Buffalo is a No. 13 seed in the South Region and will play fourth-seeded Arizona at approximately 8:40 p.m. Thursday.
Miller said Otzelberger and Oats have Whitewater ties but noted the two have traveled much different paths on their way to the Big Dance.
Oats was a UW-Whitewater assistant alongside Miller for the 2000-01 season. When Miller was hired as head coach going into the next year, Oats spent one season working under Miller.
Miller remembers Oats coming up clutch that season when Miller forgot his suit on the way to a Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament game.
“We’re halfway to Stevens Point (when I realized it),” Miller said. “He had brought two suits and two pairs of shoes. His suit fit me perfect. He said, ‘I don’t know why I brought two suits, but I did.’ And nobody knew the difference.”
Oats went on to be the head coach at Romulus High School outside Detroit from 2002-13, when he was hired as an assistant at Buffalo. When Bulls head coach Bobby Hurley left for Arizona State in 2015, Oats took over as head coach.
He’s one of just a few Whitewater/Buffalo connections. Former Warhawks head football coach Lance Leipold is now head coach of the Buffalo football program. And current UW-Whitewater athletic director Todd Garzarelli came from Buffalo, where he was a senior associate athletic director.
Otzelberger was a three-year starter for the Warhawks from 1998-2001 before his career was cut short due to compartment syndrome. Miller said Otzelberger stuck around to help out the program during his final year of college.
“He’s a guy that has always been a leader, a deal-maker, an organizer,” Miller said. “He had a stint where he was coaching high school basketball and playing a lot of softball. He would organize the league and the teams, and that’s just how he operates. He does a great job connecting with people and staying in contact.”
Otzelberger spent time as a high school coach at Burlington Catholic Central and had a variety of assistant-coaching stops between 2004 and 2016 before being hired at South Dakota State in April 2016.
A Milwaukee native, he is now in his second year at South Dakota State, which is in search of its first NCAA Tournament victory. There are five players on the Jackrabbits’ roster that hail from the state of Wisconsin.
“I stay in touch with both (Oats and Otzelberger),” said Miller, noting he and Oats ran into each other while staying in the same hotel at last year’s Final Four. “They both obviously chose basketball and have done a great job, and they’ve paid their dues but have taken different paths.
“They’ve also got really different personalities, but they’ve gone on to be equally successful.”
Based on the recent history of upsets by a No. 12 seed, South Dakota State must like its chances. Over the past 18 NCAA Tournaments, just twice have all four No. 5 seeds won their first-round games. Ten No. 12 seeds have won games in the past five years.
A No. 13 seed is a little bit more of a long shot, but they’ve upset a No. 4 seed 12 times in the past 17 years.
A couple of former Warhawks just might pen this year’s Cinderella story.
Eric Schmoldt is sports editor of The Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org