Ray Harper is a man in media demand this week.
Since coaching the fourth-seeded Jacksonville State men’s basketball team to its first Ohio Valley Conference title and NCAA tournament berth in the school’s Division I era, he’s talked to Birmingham’s WJOX, NBC Sports Radio, SiriusXM College Sports Nation, KJR in Seattle, SB Nation and ESPN Radio.
“It’s all right,” he said Monday, while on a recruiting trip in Tennessee. “I’m in the car, so I’ve got nothing but time.”
What a coups for JSU and Harper.
Because the Ohio Valley Conference tournament came earlier than others, the Gamecocks became the first team nationally to punch its ticket to the NCAA tourney. Selection Sunday will come eight days after JSU’s victory over Tennessee-Martin in Saturday’s OVC final, and the Gamecocks have time to bask in national media before other teams clinch bids in conference tourneys finishing this week and Sunday.
JSU’s story is compelling. Not only did the Gamecocks make the NCAA tourney for the first time since the school left Division II following the 1992-93 school year, but the current team went from eight wins to 20 in one year.
They did it under Harper, the former Western Kentucky coach who resigned suddenly after that school suspended three players a year ago.
The Gamecocks (20-14) did it with nine new players but led mostly by a returning handful, including guard Malcolm Drumright, the OVC tourney’s most valuable player.
With all the makings of a great story, JSU now soaks in the life of “March Madness” and “bracketology,” which seemed unthinkable months ago. JSU, which had last qualified for the OVC tourney five years ago, was picked last in the league’s East Division and received fewer voter points than the other 11 conference teams.
Madness and bracketology seemed barely possible a week ago for JSU. Despite a 17-win regular season and 9-7 OVC finish, the Gamecocks placed no players on the All-OVC first team.
As of Monday, ESPN “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi, known more around here for tracking Alabama’s seemingly annual NCAA “bubble” watches, has JSU projected as a No. 16 seed in the South Regional. If he’s right, then JSU will play top-seeded North Carolina in a first-round game in Greenville, S.C.
“I haven’t even looked at it,” Harper said. “Wherever they tell us to go, that’s where we’ll be, and, hopefully, we’ll be ready to play.
“It’s going to be a great environment, wherever we go. It’s going to be a great environment for our kids, and we’ll see what happens.”
In the immediate, JSU’s players have lived amid the buzz following their breakthrough. The Gamecocks will resume practice Wednesday after having Sunday and Monday off. Tuesday is set aside for individual workouts. Player media availabilities resume Wednesday.
That’s a new problem … more demand for interviews of JSU’s basketball players.
The JSU athletics community also basks in the moment. Second-year athletics director and 23-year department employee Greg Seitz has worked several NCAA tourneys, assisting the NCAA with event management and media activities, and knows what’s ahead.
“I’m thrilled that our players, coaches, staff, fans and alumni will get to experience March Madness with the Gamecocks,” he said. “It’s so exciting to be a part of this special moment in history for JSU basketball, and the memories over the coming weeks will be something that everyone associated with Jacksonville State will cherish for years to come.”
Harper, meanwhile, can recruit with something new in his pocket.
Then again, he said changing perceptions of JSU’s program became evident early in recruiting. The early signing period, in November of last year, saw JSU sign 6-foot-7 forward Jason Burnell out of St. Petersburg (Fla.) College, 6-3 guard Maurice Dunlap out of Jones County (Miss.) Community College/Mississippi State and 6-9 post Cameron Martin out of Norman (Okla.) North High School.
“We had a vision of what we wanted to do, and we’ve been selling that since we got there,” Harper said. “I think it showed during the early signing period. We signed three kids, and one is Florida JUCO (junior college) player of the year. Another one was named MVP of the Mississippi JUCO tournament the other night. The big kid out of Oklahoma was one of two finalists for Mr. Basketball.
“The kids we’re recruiting believed in what we were talking about from day one. There’s no secret that we were talking, we’re going to win championships, and we’re going to play in March.”
Selling it is one thing. Doing it validates the sales pitch, especially doing it ahead of expectations.
But those are ranging implications of what JSU and Harper have accomplished in his first year as a head coach. For the moment, it’s about the accomplishment and attention it has brought.
“It’s every 10 minutes with someone, but, you know, that’s what it’s all about,” Harper said of interviews from state, regional and national media. “The more we can get the Jacksonville State brand out there and get that name across the country, the more it’s going to help us.
“I don’t think you can put a price tag on the advertisement and the marketing that this could mean for our university. I’m excited just to be a small part of it.”
Contact Sports Writer Joe Medley at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter, @jmedley_star.