SPARTANBURG, S.C. | It took about 20 or 25 minutes — which felt like “an eternity” to Eric Garcia — but it really wasn’t that long of a wait for the former Grandview basketball star to make the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Just nine months after he graduated from his Aurora high school, Garcia — now the starting point guard at Wofford University — is set to play in every basketball player’s dream, March Madness.
The only wait he had to make, along with his Southern Conference champion Terriers, was the time it took for their names to come up in Sunday’s NCAA tournament Selection Show. After nearly half an hour, Wofford’s fate was revealed, a No. 15 seed and a matchup with No. 2 Michigan — which made the national championship game last season — in a game scheduled for 5:10 p.m. MT Thursday at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
“I’m on Cloud 9 right now and I’m just so excited to get there and play the game and just get everything started,” Garcia said in a phone interview from Wofford’s campus on Monday. “The last week has been crazy.
“This is what I envisioned, but I don’t know about my first year. I feel I’m spoiled in a way. Some of these guys haven’t had this opportunity before, so I’m really blessed to have this chance.”
Things didn’t look quite so bright a month into the season, however. The Terriers opened the season 7-10 and faced a long climb ahead if they wanted any kind of chance to play in the postseason.
But Garcia — who is shooting a scorching 47 percent from 3-point range and playing 26.5 minutes per game — continued to grow in his role as a point guard, which is a welcomed change from when he played at Grandview, where he felt the need to take some of the scoring load for the Wolves.
From his start at Wofford, coach Mike Young — the Southern Conference Coach of the Year — encouraged Garcia not to shy away from shooting while also fulfilling his job as a distributor.
“Coach gives me a lot of freedom to shoot the ball and I scored 19 points in the tournament, so I’ve had some games like that, but I’m mostly just making sure I get the ball to the right guys at the right time,” Garcia said of his role.
“It’s the best thing in the world. I feel like I can be a true point guard. I can score a little bit, but it also gives me more excitement when my teammates score and that actually helps me feel less pressure in college than I did in high school.”
On top of clearer definition of roles on a team that has only one senior regular, Wofford also turned the corner defensively in Garcia’s estimation during a game against Winthrop prior to Christmas break.
The defensive growth helped the Terriers catch fire. They’ve now won 13 of their last 15 games and captured the Southern Conference with a 56-53 win over Western Carolina on March 10.
“That was the craziest game of my life,” Garcia said. “Once Western missed that final shot, I got the rebound and threw the ball up in the air. It was the best moment of my life. I thought I was dreaming.”
Texts and well-wishes poured into Garcia’s phone from Aurora and they’ve kept coming.
“I’m getting a lot of love from back home,” he said. “My phone hasn’t stopped going off since the championship game.”
Garcia wishes he could come home for the first time since Christmas, but he’s thankful that his whole family plans to make the trip out to Milwaukee to watch the tournament game.
He promises the Terriers won’t be intimidated by playing a Michigan team that has been one of the most successful over the years in the NCAA Tournament.
“It adds a lot to play a team like Michigan, you always watch those guys on TV and you see them multiple times throughout the year,” Garcia said. “They are a great team and a great school. It’s going to be great to be on the court with them, but we’re not little kids anymore and we can’t look at them like that.
“We belong there and we’re just going to go out, execute and play the way we’ve been playing.”
Coincidentally, Wofford is in the Midwest Region along with No. 14 Mercer, which also has a former Aurora prep star on its roster in Regis Jesuit graduate and senior starter Bud Thomas. The two ex-city standouts could meet in the Sweet 16 if both teams can pull off first round upsets — Mercer plays No. 3 Duke — and win again in the second round.
Courtney Oakes is Sports Editor of the Aurora Sentinel. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. Facebook: Aurora Prep Sentinel
NO. 15 WOFFORD (20-12) VS. NO. 2 MICHIGAN (25-8) AT A GLANCE
By the Associated Press
Nickname: Terriers. Coach: Mike Young.
Conference: Southern. Bid: Southern champion.
Region: Midwest. Seed: No. 15.
Tournament Record: 0-2, 2 years. Last appearance: 2011.
Scoring: Team (67.0); Karl Cochran 15.7; Spencer Collins 12.8; Lee Skinner 11.2.
Rebounds: Team (33.4); Lee Skinner 8.6; Karl Cochran 5.0.
Assists/Turnovers: Team (12.5/11.0); Karl Cochran 3.0/1.9; Eric Garcia 2.6/0.9; Lee Skinner 2.1/2.0.
3-pointers: Team (.359); Karl Cochran 77; Eric Garcia 43; Jaylen Allen 28; Spencer Collins 27.
Last Ten: 8-2.
The Skinny: Mike Young was named the Coach of the Year in the conference. The Terriers are making their third trip to the NCAA tournament in the last five years.
Nickname: Wolverines. Coach: John Beilein.
Conference: Big Ten. Bid: At large.
Region: Midwest. Seed: No. 2.
Tournament Record: 48-23, 24 years. Last appearance: 2013.
Scoring: Team (74.4); Nik Stauskas 17.5; Caris LeVert 13.3; Glenn Robinson III 13.0.
Rebounds: Team (31.8); Jordan Morgan 4.7; Caris LeVert 4.5; Jon Horford 4.4; Glenn Robinson III 4.3.
Assists/Turnovers: Team (14.2/9.4); Nik Stauskas 3.3/1.9; Derrick Walton Jr. 2.8/1.5; Caris LeVert 2.8/1.7.
3-pointers: Team (.394); Nik Stauskas 80; Zak Irvin 56; Caris LeVert 53; Derrick Walton Jr. 36.
Last Ten: 8-2.
The Skinny: The Wolverines reached the title game last year as a No. 4 seed. They enter this year’s NCAA tournament as a No. 2 after winning the Big Ten by three games in the regular season. Michigan played the entire conference slate without big man Mitch McGary, who has been out with a back injury.