NCAA Tourney Draw: Let's Hear It for Longshots

The heels of four basketball players are shown as they chase a loose ball. i i

hide captionYep, it's time to dive right into March Madness.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
The heels of four basketball players are shown as they chase a loose ball.

Yep, it's time to dive right into March Madness.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

At this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament the biggest surprise has been a lack of really big surprises.

After all, upsets are what make the spectacle so much fun — and office pools such sweet agony.

But as the Sweet 16 took shape this weekend, some underdogs began to bark a bit.

Sunday saw a No. 2 seed fall as No. 7 seed UNLV pounced on Wisconsin, 74-68. The Badgers were briefly the top-ranked team in some of the regular-season polls before injuries and two late losses to Ohio State showed their vulnerability. They are now the highest-rated team bounced from the tournament.

Saturday — as several games went into overtime — it took two extra sessions for No. 6 seed Vanderbilt to polish off No. 3 seed Washington State, setting up a future date with Georgetown in the Meadowlands.

And let's not forget Butler and Tennessee. The No. 5 seeds handled No. 4 seeds Maryland and Virginia, respectively, to earn the chance for much bigger targets: No. 1 seeds Florida and Ohio State.

Meanwhile, the Winthrop Eagles — who many felt might fly high in this tournament — were grounded by a no-less majestic bunch of birds Sunday. Winthrop, a No. 11 seed, lost 75-61 to the Fighting Ducks of Oregon, a No. 3 seed.

Three other Saturday games featured near-misses:

No. 9 seed Xavier coulda, shoulda and woulda beaten No. 1 seed Ohio State. But the Muskateers left a tiny little window open for the Buckeyes after holding an 11-point lead late in the second half. After sending the game into overtime with a 3-point shot, OSU overpowered its deflated Ohio rival in the extra period to win 79-71.

In other near-upsets, No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth roared back from 19 points down to take No. 3 seed Pitt into overtime before the favored Panthers advanced. And No. 6 seed Louisville came within a basket of knocking out No. 3 seed Texas A&M.

Even so, this tournament is as short on stunners and shockers as any in recent memory. Only five of the 32 first-round games defied the bracket-makers' expectations.

So on to Sunday, where the game carrying the most potential for bracket-busting features No. 11 seed Winthrop testing its mettle against No. 3 seed Oregon.

Now, take a last look at the Davids — and the Davidsons — who showed up, slingshots in hand, hoping to knock a Goliath or two upside the head:

In the Land of Rising Hopes

Lurking among those seeded 10th, 11th and 12th are several teams with the potential to make life miserable for higher-ranked opponents... just ask Duke and Notre Dame.

The VCU mascot, a student in a large ram costume.

hide captionThe Rams of Virginia Commonwealth were hoping to horn in on the kind of tournament success enjoyed last year by Colonial Athletic Association rival George Mason. But they fell short.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH (VCU)

Outcome: Lost to Pitt 78-74 in overtime after erasing a 19-point deficit to climb back into the second-round game. Beat Duke in the first round, 79-77.

Players to Watch: Jesse Pellot-Rosa passed up major college football opportunities at bigger schools to stay at home and hoop it up in Richmond. He's the senior leader. But Eric Maynor, a satin-smooth sophomore guard, might be the most dangerous player on the court.

Fun Fact: The Rams' Web site would have you know that VCU has the most Division I wins of any team in Virginia over the past four years. Why is that noteworthy? Virginia will have four teams in this year's NCAA tournament, Old Dominion joining VCU, Virginia and Virginia Tech. It's also worth mentioning that VCU played in-state rivals 13 times this season, though they couldn't get Virginia or Virginia Tech on the schedule.

On the Up Side: They showed plenty of poise and an aggressive pressing defense against both Duke and Pitt. They won 28 games this year. And Maynor will be back next year.

Winthrop's Torell Martin, Mantoris Robinson guard UNC's Tyler Hansbrough.

hide captionWinthrop's Torell Martin (#12 in red) and teammate Mantoris Robinson have shown they can play with the big boys, including North Carolina and Tyler Hansbrough.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

WINTHROP

Outcome: Lost 75-61 to Oregon in Round Two after beating Notre Dame 74-64 in the first round.

Player to Watch: Torrell Martin, a 6-5 senior guard, scores and rebounds, but on this team nearly everyone has a significant contribution to make. Martin's 17 points in the Big South tournament championship game led the team, but five players scored in double figures. (Martin had another strong game against Notre Dame, scoring 20 points and hauling down 11 rebounds. He had 15 points and 12 boards against Oregon.)

Fun Fact: The Winthrop media guide asks the players to name a "favorite book." I counted three "Bibles," several "nones" and three that made me think "student athlete." (Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, Night by Elie Weisel, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

On the Up Side: The program appears to be on the rise. Besides the victory against Notre Dame, this year featured a number of close losses to big schools (Wisconsin in overtime, North Carolina by seven points, etc.) and a couple of solid wins (Missouri State, Old Dominion). Coach Gregg Marshall, who spent the first three years of his life a stone's throw from the Winthrop campus, has returned to build a winner in the Big South.

LONG BEACH STATE

Outcome: Outmatched 121-86 by an athletic Tennessee team that only recently dismantled overall No. 1 seed Florida.

Players to Watch: Senior guard Aaron Nixon traveled all the way from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to Long Beach. The 6-2 Nixon had 11 rebounds in the Big West title game to go with his 29 points, and averaged 18.6 a game over the course of the season. His senior running mate, Kejuan Johnson, averages 15.3 points a game. (Nixon and Johnson had 21 points each against Tennessee.)

Fun Fact: If you're of a certain age, you'll remember the 1971 Long Beach State team. Coaching legend Jerry Tarkanian spent five years at the school early in his career. His '71 team nearly upset UCLA in the West Regional behind superb big man Ed Ratleff, who became a co-captain of the ill-fated 1972 U.S. Olympic Team.

On the Up Side: The 49ers overcame a 2-and-4 start to their season to finish 24-8 overall.

Creighton's Nate Turk defends against West Virginia's Tyrone Sally in March 2006.

hide captionCreighton's Nate Turk was back on his heels in the 2006 NCAA tournament. His Blue Jays missed a shot at upset city this year, too.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

CREIGHTON

Outcome: Lost in overtime, 77-71, to No. 7 seed Nevada.

Player to Watch: Nate Funk has twice been runner-up for Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. He leads Creighton in points, minutes played, field goals, three-point field goals, assists, steals and free-throw percentage. What, he can't rebound? Well, actually, he can. As Creighton shoved aside higher-ranked Southern Illinois to win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, Funk averaged 5.7 rebounds along with 22 points a game. (Funk had 21 points against Nevada.)

Fun Fact: Before beating Southern Illinois in the MVC final, Creighton had lost eight straight to the Salukis.

On the Up Side: The Missouri Valley Conference sent two teams to the Sweet 16 last year, and Creighton's Blue Jays will continue to build on fierce competition in the MVC, playing teams such as Southern Illinois, Missouri State and Bradley.

No. 13: Not Always Unlucky

It's never a mortal lock that a 13th-seeded team will beat a No. 4 seed, but it happens. And in one of the first games of this year's tournament, Davidson came close to knocking off Maryland...

ALBANY

Outcome: Lost 84-67 to the University of Virginia, which earned a No. 4 seed on the strength of its ACC regular-season record.

Player to Watch: Jamar Wilson, a 6-1 senior guard, was named America East player of the year for the second year in a row. (Wilson finished with 25 points against Virginia, but struggled early as Albany fell far behind.)

Fun Fact: Wilson shares that honor of back-to-back America East player of the year awards with the late Boston Celtics great Reggie Lewis. (Two others can also claim to be America East player of the year double-dippers: Malik Rose of Drexel, who went on to a solid NBA career, and Vermont legend Taylor Coppenrath.)

On the Up Side: Just last year, as a No. 15 seed, they held a 12-point lead on No. 2 seed Connecticut in the second half before losing 72-59. It's tough to keep surprising the big boys year after year. Coach Will Brown has won back-to-back America East titles, though.

DAVIDSON

Outcome: Put a scare into No. 4 seed Maryland, then tired, losing 84-72 after holding a lead in the second half.

Player to Watch: Freshman Stephen Curry, the son of 16-year NBA vet Dell Curry, was the Southern Conference tourney MVP. He averaged 26.3 points in three games, with 29 in the title game. (He had 30 against Maryland.)

Fun Fact: It's a small program with big ambitions. Five of 13 players on roster are from outside the United States, following a trend to recruit foreign talent, and only two are from North Carolina, where Davidson is located.

On the Up Side: They won 27 games, with five losses coming against solid programs (at Duke, at Michigan, at Missouri, at home to highly regarded Appalachian State and in the NCAA first-round game with Maryland). They had won 13 in a row entering the tournament.

HOLY CROSS

Outcome: Smothered, 61-51, by the tenacious D played by Southern Illinois, a No. 4 seed.

Players to Watch: Senior guards Keith Simmons and Torrey Thomas drove the engine for Holy Cross. The 6-5 Simmons was the Patriot League player of the year, a consistent scorer who can rebound, too. Thomas is a 5-11 point guard who ranks high on the school's all-time lists in steals and assists — and who would like to go to law school when he's done at Holy Cross. (Thomas had 15 points against Southern Illinois, but Simmons managed only 4.)

Fun Fact: The very first name in the Holy Cross athletic Hall of Fame, established in 1956, is Louis F. Sockalexis (class of 1897). He's the member of the Penobscot tribe who later became one of the first non-white players in big-league baseball and inspired the Cleveland franchise to call itself the Indians. But another name in that initial group of inductees might jump out at basketball fans: Bob Cousy (class of 1950) was the quintessential point guard who went on to fame with the Boston Celtics.

On the Up Side: Holy Cross won 25 games out of the Patriot League, playing Syracuse, Duke, George Mason and Niagara along the way.

Freshman Kevin Durant of Texas dunks against Oklahoma State.

hide captionSuper freshman Kevin Durant and Texas were just a bit too much for New Mexico State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

NEW MEXICO STATE

Outcome: Lost 79-67 to Texas, but kept it close until the final minutes.

Players to Watch: The best player on the Aggie bench is head coach Reggie Theus, the flashy former UNLV swingman who put together a quietly awesome NBA career. But he can't actually put on a uniform. Elijah Ingram, a 6-1 senior guard, went West after starting at St. John's. (He had 16 points against Texas.) Justin Hawkins, a 6-7 transfer from Utah, is a big talent.

Fun Fact: There's another Theus on the bench — Reggie's second cousin Londale, a 6-5 freshman guard. Wait 'til next year?

On the Up Side: The Aggies won 25 games on the year. Theus has used transfer students to jump-start a program that went 6-24 just two years ago. If he stays — he's being courted by bigger schools — this program is on the rise.

No. 14: The Odds Get Longer

Pick a 14th seed to advance? You're either a gambler or a loyal fan. Yet teams from the Mid-American Conference (Miami) and the Horizon League (Wright State) did well in past tournaments...

MIAMI of OHIO

Outcome: Made a red-hot Oregon team exceedingly nervous before losing, 58-56.

Player to Watch: Tim Pollitz, a 6-6 forward, looks pudgy and slow at first glance. But keep watching. He runs the floor, makes an ungodly high percentage of his shots and grabs many key rebounds and loose balls. (He had 21 points against Oregon on 8 of 11 shooting from the field.)

Fun Fact: If you happen to be around Miami coach Charlie Coles, don't call Miami's buzzer-beater win over Akron in the MAC tournament final a heart-stopping finish. Coles has been there and done that. He collapsed on the sideline during a 1998 game, in full cardiac arrest. After 11 minutes without a pulse, he was revived and eventually returned to coaching. At 65, he has a contract extension through the 2008-09 season.

On the Up Side: The Red Hawks finish this year just 18-15. But they can build on an always respectable non-conference schedule. And Pollitz and 6-5 guard Michael Bramos return next year.

ORAL ROBERTS

Outcome: Lost to Washington State of the PAC-10, 70-54.

Players to Watch: Caleb Green is a 6-8, 255-pound force who stayed home in Tulsa to play for ORU. He became the first three-time Mid-Continent Conference player of the year. But you say you don't want no fancy player? Just one like old Ken Tutt? Ken Tutt is the Golden Eagles' all-conference senior guard, hard-nosed and powerful. (Tutt led the Golden Eagles with 19 points in the loss to Washington State. Green had 13 on a rough shooting day.)

Fun Fact: Oral Roberts head coach Scott Sutton is the son of Eddie Sutton, longtime head coach at Oklahoma State (and before that, Creighton, Arkansas and Kentucky). Sean Sutton, Scott's older brother, succeeded their father as head coach at OK State this year. But Scott is the only Sutton boy who gets to go to the dance this year. Oklahoma State will be bypassed after a so-so season in the Big 12.

On the Up Side: They went on the road to beat Kansas, now a No. 1 seed, in Lawrence early in the season.

PENN

Outcome: Lost to Texas A&M.

Player to Watch: Ibrahim Jaaber was the unanimous selection for Ivy League player of the year. The 6-2 senior guard was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and played his high school ball in Elizabeth, N.J.

Fun Fact: Penn's home "gym" is The Palestra in Philadelphia. Opened in 1927, it has hosted more games, visiting teams and NCAA tournaments than any other college facility, starting with the four-team East region of the first-ever NCAA men's basketball championship in 1939.

On the Up Side: They won 10 in a row before the tournament and finished 22-8. After a poor first half against A&M they roared back to take a 39-37 lead halfway through the second half. But they couldn't hang on.

WRIGHT STATE

Outcome: After an early flurry, lost 79-58 to Pitt, a No. 3 seed out of the Big East.

Player to Watch: DaShaun Wood, a tough, powerful guard from Detroit, was the Horizon League player of the year. He is listed at 5-11, and plays squatter, which is not a bad thing at all. (Wood had 13 points and half a dozen rebounds against Pitt.)

Fun Fact: Wright State's sports teams are known as the Raiders. Their mascot is a wolf — which, frankly, can be mistaken for a dog. It turns out a character named Rowdy Raider, who wore a horned helmet, was disposed of along the way to make room for a mascot who was non-gender specific. Voila, the dog — excuse, me wolf. And now it's an underwolf. Excuse me, underdog.

On the Up Side: Wright State beat Butler (a No. 5 seed which won its first-round game in the tournament) TWICE this year, including the title game of the Horizon League tournament. Their coach, Brad Brownell, previously took UNC-Wilmington to a pair of NCAA tournaments. The Raiders will return to tournament play soon.

No. 15: Possible, Not Probable

The problem with 15th seeds? They have to play No. 2 seeds. And 2-seeds are often not just good... they're also angry that they weren't No. 1 seeds. Ask Weber State if UCLA was peeved...

Belmont's Justin Hare drives against UCLA's Arron Afflalo.

hide captionIt was Bruin on Bruin in the 2006 tournament as Belmont's Justin Hare drove against UCLA's Arron Afflalo. Both players were back for another shot this year.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

BELMONT

Outcome: Overpowered 80-55 by Big East champion Georgetown, seen by many as a dark-horse candidate for the national title.

Player to Watch: Justin Hare, a junior guard from Cleveland, Tenn., is the Bruins' best all-around player. He's also the two-time MVP of the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament and a top student. (Hare had 10 points and 2 assists against Georgetown on a poor shooting day.)

Fun Fact: Belmont had never been in the NCAA tournament until last year. Now they're back for a second appearance. "Yeah, it's our second time, it's great again," Hare said about making the tournament. "But we'd like to be more competitive and less in awe of it all."

On the Up Side: The Bruins led 11-4 in the early going against a deep, talented Georgetown team. They lost to UCLA in the 2006 tournament, and UCLA wound up in the championship game. Perhaps Georgetown is headed for the Final Four, too.

NORTH TEXAS

Outcome: Lost 73-58 to Memphis, which earned a No. 2 seed after steamrolling a succession of Conference USA opponents.

Players to Watch: Calvin Watson and Kendrick Davis are senior guards and the team's leading scorers. They bring the backcourt experience that so many analysts love. (But Keith Wooden led North Texas with 18 points against Memphis.)

Fun Fact: The school's distinctive Mean Green nickname is derived from the North Texas gridiron days of pro football Hall of Famer "Mean Joe" Greene. The precise origin of the nickname is in dispute.

On the Up Side: North Texas won 23 games this year — and the Sun Belt tourney — to gain an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 1988.

TEXAS A&M CORPUS CHRISTI

Outcome: After scaring the cheese out of Big 10 runner-up Wisconsin, the Islanders dropped their first-round game 76-63.

Player to Watch: Chris Daniels, a 7-footer, earned Southland Conference player of the year honors.

Fun Fact: This was the first-ever trip to the NCAA Division I tournament for the Islanders, who played an independent schedule until joining the Southland Conference just this year. In fact, the school didn't field a basketball team until 1999.

On the Up Side: Nothing but up side here. The Islanders went 26-6 and have won 20-plus games for three years in a row. They led Wisconsin 25-7 in the first half before the Badgers remembered which school was the No. 2 seed. Daniels has a year of eligibility left if he chooses to use it.

WEBER STATE

Outcome: Thumped 70-42 by UCLA, last year's national runner-up.

Player to Watch: David Patten, a 6-8 surfer-dude type from Placentia, Calif., is the only returning starter for the Wildcats. He's a very likeable and diverse player. He can score inside and he can step out to shoot a three-pointer. In past years, he also led the team in blocked shots AND steals. And he plays with a smile. (He had 8 points against UCLA, which actually LED Weber State in scoring.)

Fun Fact: Weber State stayed out west all year, venturing only as far east as Greeley, Colo. They did make a trip to Alaska in November for the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks.

On the Up Side: The Big Sky Conference champs can build on this 20-win season. Next year they'll have more returning starters, including Juan Pablo Silveira (Uruguay) and Arturus Valeika (Lithuania).

No. 16: 'Never' Is a Long Time

Welcome to the impossible dream. As anyone who pays any attention at all has heard, a No. 16 seed has NEVER beaten a No. 1 seed. Being an Ohio State fan, that made me shudder... until the game began.

CENTRAL CONNECTICUT STATE

Outcome: Flattened 78-57 by No. 1 seed Ohio State, the nation's top-ranked team in polls.

Player to Watch: Javier Mojica, a 6-3 guard, led the CCSU Blue Devils through the Northeastern Conference Tournament, scoring 25 points in the title game. (He had 19 points and 6 rebounds against Ohio State.)

Fun Fact: Somebody down there loves THESE Devils. To win the NEC tourney they beat St. Francis, Mount St. Mary's AND Sacred Heart in successive games. So if you're looking for some kind of sign before you fill in your brackets....

On the Up Side: Central Connecticut State won 22 games this season. They've averaged more than 18 wins a year in Coach Howie Dickenman's nine seasons. You'll see them again at the Big Dance.

EASTERN KENTUCKY

Outcome: Lost 86-65 to No. 1 seed North Carolina — but not before coming back from a 37-12 deficit to creep within four points of Carolina early in the second half.

Players to Watch: There's youth galore on this team. The leading scorer is a 6-3 sophomore guard, Mike Rose. The second-leading scorer is a 6-0 freshman, Adam Leonard. (Leonard had 14 points, Rose 13 in the UNC loss.)

Fun Fact: At 36, Jeff Neubauer is a coach on the rise. He's still the youngest head man in the Ohio Valley Conference, but he spent many years as an assistant to West Virginia mentor John Beilein — including benchwork during Beilen's successful earlier stay at Richmond.

On the Up Side: The Ohio Valley Conference champs are so young that they are likely to be much better in a year. Neubauer's clever offense and shifting defenses offset many of Eastern Kentucky's shortcomings.

FLORIDA A&M

Outcome: Lost 77-69 to Niagara in Tuesday's play-in game.

Player to Watch: Rome Sanders, a bulky 6-8 transfer from Northern Illinois, was named to the 2007 All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference first team. He averaged 16.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, and he's fifth in the NCAA field goal percentage, making 65.3 percent of his shots.

Fun Fact: Sanders is one of six players from Chicago who went south to Tallahasee for sunshine and playing time. This should be no surprise, as Coach Mike Gillespie was an All-State player at Joliet Catholic High School, then played three years under Ray Meyer at DePaul.

On the Up Side: The Rattlers played an ambitious non-conference schedule in the past year, taking on tournament teams Florida, Pitt, Maryland, Illinois and Miami of Ohio. And they showed plenty of pluck against Niagara, rallying twice to make the game close after fallling behind by double digits early.

JACKSON STATE

Outcome: Played energetically in the first half, but wore down in a 112-69 loss to Florida, the overall No. 1 seed and SEC champion.

Player to Watch: Trey Johnson is the 2007 Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) player of the year. The 6-5 senior is second in the nation in scoring, averaging 27.1 points per game. He had 30 points or more in 11 games this year. They didn't have to look far to find him, either — he's a hometown guy, straight out of Jackson, Miss. (Johnson had 27 points against Florida.)

Fun Facts: Advice for the faint of heart: Don't go for a stroll in the SWAC. You'd be preyed upon by Bulldogs (Alabama A&M), Lions (Arkansas-Pine Bluff), Panthers (Prairie View), Jaguars (Southern) and THREE distinct varieties of Tigers (Jackson State, Grambling, Texas Southern). Plus Hornets (Alabama State) and Delta Devils (Mississippi Valley State). Scary territory. Maybe that's why Alcorn State rounds it all out by being the home of the Braves.

On the Up Side: En route to a 21-13 record, they ventured into the land of the giants four times this year, losing on the road to Alabama by 31, Georgia Tech by 30, Illinois by 21 and Memphis by 42. But they play the big guys, and that has to help.

NIAGARA

Outcome: After beating Florida A&M in Tuesday's play-in game, they were thrashed by No. 1 seed Kansas, 107-67.

Players to Watch: Tyrone Lewis, an undersized and under-recruited guard from suburban Philadelphia, is a high-scoring freshman who prompts fond memories of Niagara's all-time great little man, Calvin Murphy. (He had 14 points against Kansas.) Clif Brown scored a career-high 32 against Florida A&M.

Fun Fact: Since we're talking about under-recruited little men who came up big when it counted, please note that Lewis attended Harry S. Truman High School in Philly.

On the Up Side: The Purple Eagles started the year just 1-6 after Coach Joe Mihalich was forced to suspend six players who were involved in a pre-season, off-court brawl. After that rocky start, they wound up winning 22 games. And Lewis has quite a future ahead of him.

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