By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
North Texas toils in a conference (Sun Belt) that doubles as a fanny pack worn by Florida retirees.
Memphis last year came within one win of the Final Four.
North Texas last qualified for March Madness back when Tom Landry coached the Dallas Cowboys, the Stars skated in Minnesota and Dirk Nowitzki was a 9-year-old punk playing handball in Wurzburg.
Memphis beat Kentucky by 17.
North Texas lost to UT-Arlington. At home.
Memphis is seeded No. 2 in the NCAA Tournament South Region, favored by 18 points in Friday's first-round game at 11:30 a.m. in New Orleans.
North Texas is the 15th seed, a spot that has mustered only four upsets in 88 tournament games.
But then again, the United States expected to rout Iraq. And, take it from UNT 26-year-old senior Rich Young, that road game lingers in sudden death.
"Memphis is a great team and we respect them. But scared?" Young says standing outside UNT's Athletic Center last Sunday just minutes after CBS reveals the Eagles' first-round matchup against the Tigers. "I don't get scared by much anymore. At least not by anything I can think of. When you see people killed every day and you know that at any second you could be killed by something, it changes the way you think about things. The stuff we worry about is not worth getting nervous over. In the end, it's just basketball."
The Eagles will likely lose in New Orleans, but Young won't allow his team to be the Biggest Easy.
"Obviously, with what he's been through, Rich brings us a ton of leadership in the form of maturity," says UNT coach Johnny Jones. "No matter what the situation or circumstances, he's tough and calm, and his demeanor rarely changes. He's great for us. He'd be great for anyone."
But for a while, Young wasn't too good to himself.
He was an all-state high school athlete in Farrell, Pennsylvania, and was more dedicated to hitting the boards than the books. Influenced by his older brother Brandon, Rich turned down scholarship offers from Youngstown State and Ferris State in 1999 and instead joined the Marines.
"I wasn't ready for school," Young says. "When I told people I was going into the Marines, they were all like, 'Man, that's too tough for you.' That kind of motivated me."
So instead of a freshman guard practicing jump shots, Young found himself a Marine sergeant jumping from shots. Kosovo. Kenya. And, yep, four years in Iraq.
"Sounds crazy, but it's the best decision I ever made," Young says. "It was very positive. It helped me grow up and to become mature. Made me the person I am today."
He's polite and courteous but, surprisingly, almost painfully shy for someone who's not only seen the world, but been thrown smack dab in the middle of the worst it has to offer. Young's platoon, assigned to protect supply vehicle convoys, regularly exchanged gunfire with insurgents along a treacherous stretch of road just south of Baghdad known as "Ambush Alley." Most of us, you couldn't pay enough...
But it wasn't the firefights that most affected Young. It was the faces. The frowns, tears and pain of Iraqi children, running into the dangerous road begging for food from American soldiers.
"That was tough," Young says haltingly, reluctant to relive the experience. "I never got comfortable with seeing kids that way."
Young says he remembers countless nights, not necessarily regretting his decision to trade in high-top sneakers for combat boots, but wondering if he'd get a second, better-late-than-never chance to play a game whose final score didn't get tallied in life and death.
"I always wanted to come back and play basketball and maybe play in March Madness," he says. "But most of the time while I was over there it seemed pretty farfetched."
Lucky enough to avoid injury and the horrors of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and lucid enough to simply roll his eyes when some self-aggrandizing, pampered, multimillionaire athlete like Kellen Winslow Jr. beats his chest and proclaims, "I'm a soldier!," Young finished his military commitment and returned to the civilian world as a player looking for a team. First to Eastern Oklahoma State and, eventually, to UNT.
As in Iraq, Young is an invaluable guard in Denton. At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, he plays multiple positions and provides unprecedented versatility. Despite averaging only six points and five rebounds, he became the first player in Mean Green history to surpass 50 assists, 30 blocks and 30 steals in a season.
"He's our do-it-all guy," says teammate Calvin Watson. "He'll make whatever play we need. And he never gets rattled. We can play any team we want and be down by however much, but to him it's no big deal."
Ironically, Young will reverse roles on Friday. His underdog team, like the Iraqi insurgents, will be outgunned yet determined to conquer a powerful opponent with the cunning use of guile and conviction.
UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal shouts to the overflow crowd of about 400 at Sunday's watching party, "Let's go shock the world!"
The Mean Green losing by eight or less would be surprising. A victory would be, well, madness. Or would it?
Sure, UNT's present includes sloppy ball-handling and crappy free-throw shooting, and its past includes the dreadful Vic Trilli era and an 18-point loss as a 15th seed to North Carolina back in 1988. But the Mean Green has won five in a row and a school-record 23 this season. Seven of their 10 losses were by four points or fewer. Like Memphis, they prefer an up-tempo, low-structure style that should maximize the team's athleticism. The game is on St. Patrick's Day Eve, so New Orleans—same city that hosted all four of UNT's football bowl games and close to Jones' hometown of DeRidder—should be saturated with green. Before Friday the team will get inspirational speeches from Avery Johnson, Todd Dodge and, who knows, even Mean Joe himself?
And if nothing else convinces UNT that Cinderella can don green, there's always George Mason.
"North Texas has a shot to scare somebody, even win a game," says ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas. "They go about nine deep, including the leadership of an Iraqi war veteran. They're athletic. And they have no fear. They're pretty impressive. I'll be surprised if they don't make some noise."
Memphis may be Big 'n' Rich.
But North Texas has Rich Young.