College basketball in March is synonymous with underdog teams beating the odds and pulling a surprising upset from the edge of defeat in what has become known as March Madness.
While the Central Lakes College men's basketball team is certainly not Hickory High of Indiana entering Friday's Region 13 semifinals against the nation's top-ranked Minneapolis Marauders they find themselves as underdogs.
"Going down this weekend as a coach I am comfortable in this role," CLC coach Jim Russell said. "I think we are going in there as an underdog, which is fine. I told the guys (Wednesday) in practice that as an underdog you can't go in there, sit back and make people come to you. You have make something happen and that's what our plan is.
"We want to go out there and be aggressive and when we are done know that we did the best we could, played hard and also played our style and our tempo and that's what we have been trying to create all year.
"I like this format. If you win you move on. If you lose you're done. You have to put it on the line and you can't sit around and wait."
If the Raiders upset Minneapolis they will play at 2 p.m. Saturday against the winner of Rochester/Madison Technical College with a berth to the NJCAA Division III national tournament on the line. A rematch against the Yellow Jackets would be enticing for CLC. Rochester defeated the Raiders by three points in last weekend's MCAC state semifinals.
In order to qualify for the region the Raiders needed to finish third or better in the state and did so by defeating North Division rival Vermilion in the third-place game.
"Against Rochester there was a lot of excitement and it was a pretty intense game and we just didn't take care of the basketball," Russell said. "We bounced back on Sunday, took care of the basketball, shot a high percentage pounding it inside and took care of business. Of course we would have loved to get to the championship and play Minneapolis but it works out that now we get an opportunity to play them."
The opportunity to play against the highest level of competition is not new to Raiders sophomores, who last season captured a state title, won the region tournament and advanced to the nationals.
"It's going to be really important," Russell said referring to the sophomore's postseason experience. "They know there's a lot of basketball left. They also know that it takes a lot of effort, it's going to be a physical game and there are no blowouts this time of the year. It comes down to executing plays and getting to loose balls. The sophomores understand what it takes to get there.
"Their experience is going to be a huge factor for us and they will help the freshman realize that every possession means something."
The top-ranked Marauders boast a 29-1 record that includes a 62-59 victory over CLC in December. That close loss, combined with the opportunity to take down the No. 1 team in the nation, provides the Raiders with motivation in addition to the added intensity that comes with playoff basketball.
"You would love to go in there and beat the No. 1 team on their home court," Russell said. "That's great motivation. But at this time of the year if you can't get motivated to play in the playoffs then you don't deserve to be there.
"I have always counted basketball this time in the season as frosting on the cake. We are one of three junior college teams still practicing in the state and you don't want to waste that opportunity. It's going to be a tough game, it's going to be a physical game and it's going to be a battle."
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