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Samford rides Bucky Ball to historic season, first NCAA Tournament in 24 years. On deck is Kansas

Bucky McMillan was a Birmingham teenager the last time Samford went to the NCAA Tournament, on his way to being a player at one hometown college and then a highly successful coach at a local high school.

McMillan stayed put for his next role, too, with similar results.

The fourth-year Samford coach has led the 13th-seeded Bulldogs (29-5) to their best season ever and into the NCAA field for the first time since 2000. The Southern Conference champions face No. 4-seed Kansas in the first round on Thursday in Salt Lake City as one of college basketball’s highest scoring teams.

Bucky Ball is flying high.

“It’s a lot of excitement, man,” said McMillan, the SoCon coach of the year three times running. “And to do it here with a lot of people from this city that I’ve known my whole life ...”

He doesn't have to finish the sentence. The 40-year-old McMillan grew up five miles from the Samford campus in suburban Birmingham, experiencing the excitement when Jimmy Tillette's 1999 and 2000 teams made the NCAA Tournament.

He never left his city behind, nor his fast-paced brand of basketball. Bucky Ball is a style the former Birmingham-Southern point guard has been employing — with or without the catchy nickname — since he was a 15-year-old coaching an AAU team.

The high-pressure style worked in AAU ball. In two seasons as junior varsity coach at alma mater Mountain Brook. And in 12 seasons as varsity coach — starting at age 24 — when he led Mountain Brook to five state titles from 2013-19 in the state's largest classification.

McMillan remembers facing doubters “every step of the way” that his style would actually work. He has led Samford to a 71-27 record over the last three seasons after struggling in a pandemic-shortened debut campaign.

He inherited a team that was 325 in the NET rankings and coming off a 10-23 season. The Baptist university of fewer than 6,000 students had only made March Madness twice, in 1999 and 2000. Samford is 0-2 in NCAA Tournament games.

McMillan said the feeling was the same in every big win or tournament championship along the way. A win now, however, would be different.

“Winning with a bunch of guys you like doing it with feels the same,” he said. “Now I can’t say it’s going to feel the same when we step into that NCAA Tournament, because that’s something that we all watched growing up. I get to be a part of that. That’s emotional thinking about that.”

The Bulldogs, who lost their season opener to No. 3 Purdue, 98-45, feel like their fast-paced style could bedevil bigger-name opponents enough for a tourney breakthrough.

“I feel like we play a unique style of basketball, and the college world’s not used to it,” forward Jermaine Marshall said. “I feel like we will catch a lot of people by surprise. They’re probably just gonna look and say, ‘Oh, Samford, I’ve never heard of them.’ I feel like that’s how we’re going to get them.

“Once we mess their bracket up early, I feel like that’s how we’re going to get a lot of people’s attention. They’re just going to fall in love with the style of basketball that we play.”

The impact of Bucky Ball shows up all over the stat sheet. The Bulldogs’ average of 86 points a game ranked fifth nationally through the SoCon tournament, and the scoring production has climbed by at least four points each of the past three seasons.

They’re also prolific at converting fast-break opportunities and 3-point shots and have one of the nation’s more efficient point guards in Rylan Jones.

To get a sense of the undersized, everyone-has-a-role approach: Starting guard Dallas Graziani is listed at 5-foot-8, 140 pounds and star Australian forward Achor Achor puts up 15.8 points and 6.1 rebounds a game while averaging just 22 minutes. Nobody on the team averages even 26 minutes.

Attendance has spiked along with the performance. The Bulldogs averaged 1,863 fans in home games last season, more than twice the 885 averaged the final year under Scott Padgett. McMillan figures probably 80% of the people who come to the games may not have had any affiliation with Samford before.

“It’s been kind of a Birmingham effort,” McMillan said.

Just like his career.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness