KANSAS CITY, Mo. — He is believed to be the first deaf athlete playing in the NCAA Tournament, but Michael Lizarraga isn't concerned with making history. Only that he and his Cal State Northridge teammates are here.
"It's just like, 'Wow,' it's amazing I get to be here with the team and playing this tournament,' " Lizarraga, a sophomore forward from the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, said through an American sign language interpreter. "It's hard to put into words. It's the best feeling I could describe. It's so much fun."
Lizarraga isn't likely to play today against No. 2 seed Memphis — he's averaged 1.6 points and 0.9 rebounds while seeing action in just eight games. But coach Bobby Braswell said he's an important part of the squad.
"He's really an inspiration to all of us. He does contribute. He may not contribute in games, although I would never hesitate to use him," Braswell said. "Our guys will tell you they hate to go against Mike in practice, because he goes after them. He's a necessary part of what we've done."
Lizarraga, whose younger sister Natalie played this season on the CSD girls basketball team, said he's received lots of support from the deaf community through his page on Facebook.
"They're just so excited that I'm the only deaf player who's made it to March Madness," he said. "They say 'Beat Memphis.' We just want to play hard and show who we are, show our heart. We have nothing to lose."
Northridge is home to the largest population of deaf students of any mainstream university in the country and features the National Center for the Deaf on its campus.
Jerome Randle got a pep talk this week from another pretty good Cal point guard. Jason Kidd, who led the Bears to wins over LSU and Duke and into the 1993 Sweet 16, talked on the phone with Randle for 20 minutes Monday to offer his good wishes for today against Maryland.
"He was telling me how he's seen how I've grown," Randle said. "He was just telling me he's going to be watching."
Kidd, a 15-year NBA veteran, offered Randle advice on how to best serve his teammates.
"He said I have to lead by example," Randle said. "Just to hear that from Jason Kidd, that's great. So I'm really excited now."
Calipari expects battle
Memphis coach John Calipari isn't counting on an easy game today against a Northridge team that has overcome a series of off-court incidents.
"It doesn't matter what the score is ... with 7 or 8 minutes left, if you think this team is going to go away, you're out of your mind," Calipari said. "They're going to play because of what they've been through this year."
CSUN point guard John Jenkins was sidelined for the season after being involved in a car accident Feb. 14 that left the driver of his vehicle dead. That came after leading scorer Deon Tresvant was suspended indefinitely after an incident that led to charges of burglary against him.
"As a coach, you've always talked to your team about adversity. Usually that has to do with maybe losing two, three games in a row," Braswell said. "The kind of adversity these guys faced this year was a whole lot different."
Cal is 10-9 against teams from the ACC. Maryland won the only previous meeting with the Bears, 80-64 in Landover, Md., during the 1996-97 season. ... Maryland has won its NCAA opener in its past eight appearances.
— Jeff Faraudo