- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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The 2011-12 college basketball season began with an indelible image: Michigan State and North Carolina playing on the deck of an active aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, before thousands of U.S. troops, their commander in chief and an impossibly beautiful, bleeding San Diego sunset.
College hoops kicked off with a bang. If the four months since are any indication, we're going to end it that way, too.
From Maui to Madison Square Garden, from Coach K's record-breaking win to accusations in Syracuse to fisticuffs in Cincinnati, from Indiana's announcement ("We're back, and we're going to rush this court, and we're not going to leave!") to Austin Rivers' Chapel Hill heroics, we've already experienced the best and worst of what college hoops has to offer. But as always, this sport saves its best for last: the NCAA tournament. The Big Dance. Sixty-eight teams, four regions, three weeks of masterfully designed chaos just waiting to be unleashed.
The bracket is set. The road to the 2012 Final Four -- at a site famous for so many classic college hoops moments, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans -- is paved and marked. Before you start inking up your bracket sheet (but hopefully months after you told your boss not to expect you in the office on Thursday or Friday), let's take a truckload of college hoops knowledge, open the back hatch, and dump it squarely upon your cranium's front yard.
We'll need time to digest the pairings before us, but for now, let's assess the field. The NCAA tournament, unlike its BCS championship series brethren, is democratic. It is not, however, egalitarian. Expectations are not created equal. The sentence "I hope my team " is completed differently in Lexington, Ky., than it is Bowling Green, Ky. Some, as they say, are just happy to be here. Others won't be unless they're collecting scraps of netting in New Orleans.
As for the rest of us? We're all just happy it's here.
Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs to measure and describe human development and psychology. In Abe's honor, we propose our own hierarchy, in descending order, to measure the psychology of expectation of that most unpredictable, uncontainable and wild beast: the college basketball fan in the month of March. How will your team measure March success? And how should you approach the coming Madness?
To the couch we go:
1. Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing
Because nothing else matters: Kentucky Wildcats, in a category all their own
Kentucky coach John Calipari has developed something of a mantra the past few weeks. In essence, Calipari says his job as a college basketball coach chasing a national title is to make sure his team is always "up to bat." In other words, whether it wins or not, he's doing his job if his program is annually in position to contend for a national title.
He has a point. The Dance's win-or-go-home format always leads to zany results. The best team doesn't always win, and Calipari doesn't want his immensely talented young players to feel that lump-in-the-throat intensity that comes not from the joy of winning but from that feeling of expectations left unmet. All you can do is put good team after good team on the floor, stir the pot, and hope that this is the year you finally get that combination of talent, timing and luck just right. And if you don't? If you're Calipari -- who went to the Elite Eight and the Final Four in his first two years at UK, and has been consistently in the hunt since his days at Memphis -- you simply reboot and start all over again.
Big Blue Nation rarely disagrees with its godhead. This may be one of those times.
The nation's most rabid and rambunctious fan base is also its hungriest for success, for a return to what UK fans (understandably) consider to be their rightful place atop the college hoops throne. They haven't borne witness to a team this great -- with talents like Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague, and on and on -- in a long time. If ever. The Wildcats enter March as the clear national title favorite. The loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC championship game aside, they absolutely, often effortlessly, destroyed the SEC. They pair a brilliant pressure-packed defense with one of the nation's best (and, thanks to all the defensive talk, most underrated) offenses. Had Christian Watford's December buzzer-beater rimmed out in Assembly Hall, the Wildcats would be walking into this tournament undefeated, we'd already be crowning their you-know-whats and we'd be less concerned with whether they won the national title than where they belonged in the pantheon of college basketball's all-time greatest teams.
In other words, a title is so close UK fans can taste it. They want it. Oh, do they want it. And if they don't get it, their displeasure may spill over into the realm of the unrealistic, surfacing so many of the arguments used against Calipari in the past -- that his teams are too young to win, that he can recruit but can't coach, that he freezes in big moments, et al. Calipari has only rarely displeased Big Blue Nation; if he had an interest in politics, he could move to the governor's mansion as early as this fall. But when he has upset his die-hards, it's been because he's given the (incorrect but strangely pervasive) impression that his No. 1 priority is talent development and NBA riches -- not a streak of national titles.
Would a UK upset -- and let's be clear: if UK doesn't cut down the nets this season, it's an upset -- cause a minor Big Blue mutiny?
Calipari just wants to get his teams up to bat. UK fans would prefer he slugged 1.000. If any team can merge those stated desires, and deliver a national title to the nation's hungriest fans, this is most definitely it.
Book our ticket to New Orleans, but leave it at that
We expect ultimate glory, but we're willing to be realistic:
North Carolina Tar Heels
The Tar Heels are a fascinating test case in lowered expectations. Why? For one, no national champion has ever lost a regular-season game by 33 points. The Tar Heels have. Likewise, it was hard to watch UNC's final two minutes against Duke in Chapel Hill on Feb. 8 and say "Yep, that team can win the national title." But ever since, UNC has essentially been the team we expected to see when we locked it in to the Final Four back in May.
It was easy to throw around derisive intangibles-based criticism, to say that this team wasn't "focused" or "driven" or "tough" enough to win it all. The Tar Heels aren't perfect -- they don't shoot the ball particularly well, and they can be susceptible to perimeter-oriented offenses (never a great sign in the tourney) -- but when you have Kendall Marshall leading Harrison Barnes and John Henson on the fast break, with Tyler Zeller filling the lane, scoring on the low block and dominating the boards, you're a contender. That's national title talent.
The curveball here is Henson's health: If his wrist is OK, he's the one player in the country with the freakish height and athleticism to play Kentucky's Anthony Davis straight up. If he's injured, it's a different story. If Kentucky plays like it has all season, the Wildcats are going to the Final Four. When they get there, perhaps the only team in the country that can stop them is North Carolina. Lest we forget.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Can this Ohio State team shoot? That's the key question and the key difference between this team and the one that entered the 2011 NCAA tournament as the nation's obvious favorite to win it all. Forward Jared Sullinger turned down NBA riches and returned to college intent on dominating the sport with a new look (he shed 25 pounds in the offseason) and a new game (he added a midrange jumper and more face-up moves), but Ohio State's lack of a second true post presence has forced Sully back to the low block, where he's been essentially the same player he was in 2011.
The only difference between the 2011 buzzsaw and this season's team? Perimeter shooting. Ohio State hasn't been able to count on consistent outside marksmanship from William Buford and Aaron Craft; that duo is a far cry from lights-out long-range specialist Jon Diebler. Without Diebler, it's been easier for teams to double Sullinger in the post, easier for them to pick their poison, because only one option is truly poisonous.
But Ohio State is still among the nation's best defenses, and it still has one of the nation's most dominant players, and if the Buckeyes get hot at the right time, they can just as easily leave the letdowns of late February (which included dreary home losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin and a road defeat at Michigan) behind them. These aren't your 2011 Buckeyes, that's for sure. But with the right draw and that swarming defense, they remain a contender all the same.
Can Syracuse overcome its key flaws? It has but two: outside shooting and defensive rebounding.
The Orange made 34.5 percent of their 3s on the season, a middling number in comparison with their accuracy inside the arc (52.0 percent); their offense thrives on ball movement and balance and easy looks finished by athletic players at the rim. The Orange rank No. 341 in the country -- there are 345 Division I men's basketball teams, so you know -- in defensive rebounding rate. They simply don't keep opponents off the boards; even as those opponents flail about for a good look at the rim, they're able to get second and third chances with relative ease.
It's a major outlier for a team this good, but perhaps more disconcerting is the Big East tournament no-shows of Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine. Both players were nonfactors in Syracuse's near-loss to UConn and its semifinal defeat to Cincinnati, and for as deep as this team is -- when you bring Dion Waiters off the bench, you're really deep -- both Joseph and Jardine will have to rediscover themselves this week if Syracuse plans to make good on the promise of all this talent and its sterling 31-2 record. Neither Joseph nor Jardine has gone past the Sweet 16 in their careers. Will this be the year?
In each of the past two seasons, the Big 12's coaches have assumed Kansas was finally ready for a down season. Each of the past two seasons, Bill Self's team has done what Bill Self teams do: win Big 12 regular-season titles. In 2011-12, Kansas, led by national player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson, captured its eighth straight Big 12 crown. Which, when you think about it, is just sort of silly. Despite Friday's Big 12 tourney loss to Baylor, the Jayhawks remain a very real threat to the national title, a complete team from positions 1 through 5. The only flaw: depth. If the Jayhawks avoid foul trouble, injuries and Ali Farokhmanesh (which should be easy, because Northern Iowa isn't in the field and Farokhmanesh graduated in 2010), the Jayhawks could very well cut down the nets in April.
Roll the dice and give it a run, boys
If you lose, we'll understand, but boy a trip to New Orleans sure sounds like fun:
Duke Blue Devils
It's a credit to the ongoing brilliance of Mike Krzyzewski that this Duke team has so effectively masked its flaws all season, but boy, are there flaws: rebounding, perimeter defense and inside scoring, just to name a few. Which is why this season's Blue Devils fans -- who typically approach each year with a national-title-or-bust mindset -- might be better off hoping for a solid performance and a deep tournament run. If the Blue Devils get hot from beyond the arc, they're incredibly difficult to beat. But can you win a title on the strength of outside shooting alone? The reasonable expectation is no.
Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State's unique blend of Izzoian rebounding and defense, plus an offense that can really go, makes this team a true national title contender. So why are the Spartans relegated to this group? Because their fans -- which sat through one of the most dispiriting seasons in Tom Izzo's tenure in 2010-11, and entered this season with their team ranked outside the Top 25 -- feel like this season has been one immensely fun bonus after another. ("Whoa! Hey, we're really good! OK!") Michigan State may have something to say about the national championship, but in the meantime, Spartans fans should sit back, relax and enjoy the blissfully unexpected ride.
It isn't easy to win the national title with Missouri's specifications. The Tigers play a four-out, one-in spread style, one that relies on deadly outside shooting and lightning-quick penetration and, for the most part, outscoring opponents (the Tigers ranked No. 77 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency, a measure of how many points they allowed per possession, to finish the season). It's too easy to have an off shooting night, or to meet a team with size and quickness (cough, Kentucky), or to give up a big run to a sizzling underdog, and so on. But considering where this team was back in October -- when it lost key forward Laurence Bowers to a torn ACL, when fans were still heated about the seemingly daft hiring of former Miami coach Frank Haith, when this team could have gone in the exact opposite direction -- the Tigers' excellence to date is already more than anyone expected.
Elite Eight? Sure!
We don't have delusions of grandeur, but we dare to dream:
The Bears have been inconsistent and frustrating at times this season, but with future lottery pick Perry Jones (who played two of the best games of his life in wins over Kansas and Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament), Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller, they have one of the nation's most talented lineups. And also, let's remember one thing: We're talking about Baylor, not a national hoops power. Traditionally speaking, anything past the opening weekend is a bonus.
Thanks to freshman point guard Trey Burke and a batch of players perfectly attuned to his perimeter-oriented offense, John Beilein has fully resurrected Michigan's program. This season, Beilein won a share of the school's first regular-season Big Ten title in nearly three decades.
Marquette Golden Eagles
Marquette needed to sneak into the tournament last season, but it didn't waste its time once there: Buzz Williams guided his scrappy team into the Sweet 16, and this year, Golden Eagles fans will rightfully have their sights set on something more. But this team, good as it has been, doesn't have the look of a national title contender. Don't let that dampen the feel-good vibes.
Georgetown fans have become accustomed to late-season collapses in recent years, but not this season: The Hoyas' strong defense prevented that, and their odds of making a deep run in the tournament -- led by Henry Sims, the rare center (and a perfect one for John Thompson III's Princeton system) who leads his team in assists -- look stronger than ever. As long as the Hoyas don't do what they've done the past three NCAA tournament appearances (that is, lose much earlier than they should), an anxious fan base will take it.
Cardinals fans have high expectations every year under Rick Pitino, but this season's rash of injuries and the Cardinals' lackluster offense makes this scrappy, defensive team much like last season's: sometimes hard to watch, but always easy to cheer for. That said, how do you explain this past week's Big East championship run? Could the Cardinals be finding their offense at just the right time?
Bo Ryan has developed something of a reputation as a regular-season coach: He puts together winning outfit after winning outfit, earns single-digit seed after single-digit seed, only to see his teams lose during or before the second weekend of the tournament. But based on sheer talent -- or lack thereof -- Ryan's team's can just as easily be seen as overachievers. Where will they land this year?
The Bearcats stumbled out of the gate, and found themselves embroiled in a brawl with rival Xavier on Dec. 10 (you may have heard something about this). But Mick Cronin's team upset Syracuse on the way to the Big East title game, proving that few teams have improved down the stretch like this one.
Early upsets lurk around every corner
We know we're susceptible to being upset, but just let us enjoy this for a while, OK? Say, the opening weekend?
Indiana fans are just happy to be back in the tournament. It's been a long few years. But now that they're here, Hoosiers fans would very much like to stay for a while.
The Gators can score like crazy, but they can't defend. Assuming Gators fans have come to grips with the realities of this once-promising season -- or haven't started dreaming of spring football already -- then their expectations will have to be appropriately tempered.
Fran Dunphy's team has been the best in the Atlantic-10 all season, but 2011 marked just the first tournament win in Dunphy's tenure. This season, Owls fans could rightfully expect more -- anything that's not a first-round upset, please.
In three of the past four years, Vanderbilt became the only team to be upset in the tournament's first round three times as a single-digit seed. Needless to say, the folks in Tennessee -- who began this year with a top-10 ranking and talk of a Final Four -- would very much like to avoid an extension of that dubious distinction.
Florida State Seminoles
Leonard Hamilton's program got on the map with last season's run to the Sweet 16, and for much of this season, they looked like the ceiling could be much higher. They punctuated that perception with a win over North Carolina to win the ACC championship, giving them four wins this season over the Tar Heels and Duke. But FSU has struggled to score at times since their big midseason hot streak, and avoiding an early clang-heavy upset is now a worthy goal.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Given where Notre Dame was early in the season -- until it upset Syracuse and went on a nine-game winning streak in the middle of Big East play -- many Irish fans will be happy just to see their team in the field. But given last season's loss to No. 10-seeded Florida State, they might also prefer a longer stay this time around.
Senior forward Mike Scott's return after last season's injury led Tony Bennett's rebuilding (or rebuilt) program to its first NCAA tournament bid since 2007, and UVa fans will be sure to soak it in. And if Virginia's pack-line defense -- a unique system pioneered by Bennett's father, former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett -- doesn't fall far from the tree, the Cavaliers could be a brutal matchup against the right opponent.
Power outside the Power-Six
Do people know how good this team is? Ah, well. We just hope they make us proud*:
Wichita State Shockers
Two weeks ago, Wichita State was everyone's sleeper mid-major, the new Butler, the non-power-six team most likely to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Then the Shockers lost to Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Now? They're either so underrated they're overrated, or vice versa. We're not really sure. Either way, Ken Pomeroy's efficiency metrics put Wichita State among the nation's 10 best teams. That's real, and your favorite team doesn't want to see the Shockers in its region. Don't be shocked if OK, sorry. Let's just move on.
(*This is an actual line from my grandfather, which I think encapsulates the sentiment shared by these teams' fan bases. He was reporting on the Shockers live from Moline, Kan., on his 81st birthday last week. Happy birthday, Grandpa.)
New Mexico Lobos
If you aren't up on the Lobos, now's the time. Steve Alford's team won the MWC tournament in Las Vegas -- dropping the home favorite UNLV in the process -- but UNM has been good for awhile, boasting one of the nation's 15 best defenses on a per-possession basis.
UNLV Runnin' Rebels
Speaking of UNLV, the Rebels enter the tournament just 5-5 in their past 10 games, but it's important to remember this is the same team that beat North Carolina early in the season and -- with Mike Moser, Oscar Bellfield and Chace Stanback -- is a very talented one to boot.
You've heard of the Bulldogs, of course, but since becoming the nation's darling more than a decade ago, Gonzaga is still striving to progress past the Elite Eight. With freshman point guard Kevin Pangos leading the bruising frontcourt of Elias Harris, Robert Sacre and Sam Dower, might this be the year?
Saint Mary's Gaels
The Gaels finally got the Gonzaga monkey of their back in 2012, winning not only the regular-season title (and dethroning the Bulldogs for the first time since 2001), but taking home the conference tournament title, too. Next up? A tourney run worthy of Matthew Dellavedova, Rob Jones and the rest of this pinpoint offense.
Virginia Commonwealth Rams
After 2011's miracle First Four-to-Final Four run, the VCU Rams need no introduction. They still press, still push the tempo, still play Shaka Smart's patented "HAVOC" system to perfection. Only this season, point guard Darius Theus is playing the role of Joey Rodriguez. Don't look now, but Theus' team might even be better.
Now here's a team bound to be underseeded. Why? The Tigers underperformed for much of the season, and they didn't get things together in time to take down some quality nonconference teams, but in the last few weeks they absolutely steamrolled the C-USA. Look out.
Harvard's defense makes it a difficult trial for any team; just ask Florida State, who the Crimson knocked off back in November. But really, Harvard fans are just soaking this up. First Jeremy Lin happens, then the boys reach their first NCAA tournament since 1946, when the field was a whopping eight teams? What's next? Some student invents a $100 billion social network? Oh. Right.
Star light, star bright, carry us on to another night?
With a guy like this, we've got a shot against anyone:
If Thomas Robinson and Anthony Davis didn't exist, Creighton forward Doug McDermott would have been the national player of the year. He's that good, a versatile and hyper-efficient scorer who does much of his work in the post but is just as deadly from beyond the arc. If McDermott is rolling, Creighton's defensive issues hardly matter. They'll happily outscore you, thank you very much.
West Virginia Mountaineers
After West Virginia lost to Connecticut in the Big East tournament, Bob Huggins said of his excellent forward Kevin Jones that he was playing with "a bunch of freshmen that don't have any idea what the hell they're doing." This was an astute observation. But Jones can be a force to be reckoned with all on his own.
Murray State Racers
We could put the Racers in a handful of categories, but this one seems most appropriate, because junior guard Isaiah Canaan does it all, and efficiently, averaging more than 19 points per game while shooting 47.3 percent from beyond the arc. More than any other, he's the reason the Racers flirted with an undefeated 2011-12 season.
Long Beach State 49ers
The road-tested 49ers (who visited Pittsburgh, San Diego State, Louisville, North Carolina and Kansas in the nonconference) lost defensive stalwart Larry Anderson to injury during the Big West tournament, but they rolled through all the same. Why? Brilliant guard Casper Ware. This team is a stylistic nightmare for your favorite high-major team, but Ware's lightning-quick attack is cause for fear on its own.
Iowa State Cyclones
The Cyclones are back in the tournament in the second year under the Mayor, Fred Hoiberg, thanks to the bevy of former castoffs he adopted and molded in Ames this season. Chief among them is forward Royce White, who matured after his dismissal from Minnesota and morphed into a forward who plays like a guard. Few -- if any -- defenders in the country can match up.
South Dakota State Jackrabbits
The purveyors of one of the nation's great collegiate monikers also happen to be purveyors of one of the nation's most underrated talents: guard Nate Wolters, who finished the season ranked No. 9 in the nation in scoring and led his team in points (21.3), rebounds (5.2), assists (6.0) and steals (1.7) per game.
Reach for the sky (overachievers)
We love our guys for maxing out their talent, but can they keep it up?
Matt Painter's team is nowhere nearly as talented as the E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson-led squads of the past, lacking a true post presence and relying instead on intelligence, experience, unselfishness and guile. Will that be enough to give Robbie Hummel a much-deserved tournament run?
Kansas State Wildcats
With the exception of Rodney McGruder (MCGRUDER!), Frank Martin's team doesn't have much in the way of consistent scoring. But tough, hard-nosed defense worthy of Martin's legendary stares have made this team the type that nobody wants to play.
San Diego State Aztecs
Perhaps no team in the country overachieved more than SDSU this season, thanks in large part to its uncanny ability to win close games down the stretch. It may not be pretty, and this team may have its issues scoring, but come March, you can't put a price on clutch.
Saint Louis Billikens
Rick Majerus finally got over the hump with this SLU team, and the return of junior guard Kwamain Mitchell after 2011's disciplinary issues had much to do with that, but a turnaround from last season's 12-19 record to this season's 25-7 finish had much more to do with Majerus' maximization of the Billikens' defense, one of the nation's stingiest per-possession units.
Reach for the floor (underachievers)
Our kids didn't pay attention in class. Let's pray they're still smart enough to ace the test.
The model for underachievement this season. The defending champs lost Kemba Walker to the NBA draft lottery but gained future top-five pick Andre Drummond in the offing, and began the season with national title buzz that fizzled throughout an uninspiring 8-10 Big East campaign. But UConn played some of its best basketball in the Big East tournament, and hey you never know.
Ever since their Dec. 10 brawl with Cincinnati, the Musketeers have been lackluster and disjointed. But they got in the tournament thanks to a run to the A-10 title game, a performance that reminded us just how good Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons were when they took down Vanderbilt on the road back in November.
Alabama Crimson Tide
These aren't the Nick Saban "future NFL draft picks only" Tide, but this is a talented team, one that never truly distinguished itself in the regular season and finished SEC play having suspended four players and eventually dismissing second-leading scorer Tony Mitchell.
California Golden Bears
Cal was everyone's pick to win a legendarily bad Pac-12. They didn't. They didn't perform particularly well in nonconference play, either, getting blown out by UNLV and Missouri by a combined 56 points. But few teams can match the backcourt experience and balance of Jorge Gutierrez, Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs.
(Special collateral mention: Notre Dame)
Thanks for the bid (and the memories)
Seriously, we're just happy to be here:
Tad Boyle's team missed the tournament with first-round pick Alec Burks in 2011, but a phenomenal coaching job -- and a weak Pac-12 -- saw a better-than-advertised Buffs team through to the tourney after a championship run through the Pac-12 tournament.
Saint Bonaventure Bonnies
Center Andrew Nicholson is a physics major; he's also a future NBA forward, and his efficient and dominant play on both ends of the floor -- scoring, rebounding and protecting the rim -- got the upstart Bonnies through Xavier in the A-10 tournament finale.
The last time we saw the Bobcats in the tournament, they upset a No. 3-seeded Georgetown led by Greg Monroe. Could more be in store?
The last time we saw the Wildcats in the NCAA tournament, some guy named Stephen Curry beat Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin before narrowly losing to Kansas in the Elite Eight. These Wildcats beat Kansas (in Kansas City, no less) in December.
Wayne Tinkle's team knocked off Weber State in the Big Sky final, robbing us all of a Damian Lillard NCAA tournament appearance. We suppose we'll forgive it for that, because this team is just as dangerous.
Belmont Bruins: Don't let the low seed or the unexpected regular-season stumbles fool you: This is essentially the same team that went 30-5 in 2011 and took Duke to the wire in a 77-76 loss at Cameron Indoor in the 2012 season opener. Last year's darling status has worn off, but Mick Hedgepeth won't be satisfied with an early tournament exit this season.
The Titans, led by father-son duo Ray McCallum and Ray McCallum Jr. (a top-30 recruit in 2011 who spurned high majors to play for his father instead), may be the most talented No. 15 seed in the history of the field. As Butler coach Brad Stevens tweeted last week: "There may never have been a 15 seed that looks like Detroit." The master of March would know.
LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds
Where Brooklyn at? Where Brooklyn at?! In the NCAA tournament, of course! The Blackbirds (great nickname) beat Vermont on a neutral court earlier this season and topped Robert Morris to win the NEC title and automatic bid.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Larry Eustachy has quietly but steadily built the Golden Eagles into one of C-USA's best teams, one of the few capable of challenging Memphis at the top of the league this season. But are the overachieving Eagles a classic RPI inflation case? Or can they make real noise?
South Florida Bulls
Coach Stan Heath refuses to apologize for the way his team plays. In the abstract, there's something admirable about that. In reality, the standstill offense and stifling defense produced some of the ugliest games we saw all season. But freshman guard Anthony Collins can flat-out go.
Where have you gone, Jimmer? A nation -- and an uninspiring, mediocre BYU team that snuck in the tournament without ever distinguishing itself -- turns its lowly eyes to you.
The Gaels were the committee's one truly arguable at-large selection, at least in respect to fellow mid-major hopeful Drexel, but you can't argue with Scott Machado (the nation's assists leader), MoMo Jones (a former Arizona transfer who helped lead a trucking of Duke in the 2011 Sweet 16) and Michael Glover (an all-out athletic forward with an NBA future). The Gaels underachieved all season, but they're as scary as any double-digit seed in the field.
Colorado State Rams
The Rams nearly missed the tournament, but late wins over New Mexico and UNLV got them onto the right side of the bubble and into the field. The Rams don't have much for size -- their tallest rotation players are 6-foot-6 -- but they light up the scoreboard in a hurry.
You can argue the Longhorns underachieved all season -- they lost close games to top teams like Missouri and Baylor -- but they've yet to prove they can finish down the stretch. But J'Covan Brown is one of the nation's best perimeter scorers, if not the best.
NC State Wolfpack
Sweet, sweet relief: The Wolfpack were the last team announced in the field Sunday, the bracket equivalent of a last-second 30-foot buzzer-beater. The good news? NC State ended the season playing its best basketball, when it took North Carolina to the wire in the ACC tournament.
Loyola (Md.) Greyhounds
Two words: Jimmy Patsos. The man famous for doubling Stephen Curry for an entire 40 minutes is also one of college basketball's most flavorful characters, and any scribe worth his or her salt will keep the recorder handy when Patsos takes the stage.
Eddie Biedenbach has guided his team to its second straight tournament bid out of the Big South, and efficient guard tandem Matt Dickey and J.P. Primm will give his team a puncher's chance in March.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
The most unlikely team in the bracket. Why? Earlier this season, the Hilltoppers lost to Louisiana-Lafayette on a buzzer-beater when the Ragin' Cajuns had six players on the floor. The refs missed it, WKU fired coach Ken McDonald and hired interim coach Ray Harper and, lo and behold, made a run through to the Sun Belt tournament title and got into the tournament with a 15-18 record. What a ride.
Vermont won its conference tournament on putative favorite Stony Brook's home floor, and the Catamounts have one of the nation's all-name teamers, freshman guard Four McGlynn, in the mix.
Norfolk State Spartans
In November, when Norfolk State beat Drexel on a neutral floor, we all wondered what was wrong with Drexel. Turns out, we were asking the wrong question. The Spartans won their final seven games en route to a MEAC title.
Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils
The Delta Devils have one of the nation's best team nicknames, but to their credit, they followed up their 17-1 finish in the Southwestern Athletic Conference by surviving a topsy-turvy, anything-goes SWAC tourney. Remember, this team was 1-11 on Dec. 31 and didn't play its first home game until Jan. 3.
Just two weeks ago, first-year Lamar coach Pat Knight unleashed a postgame tirade for the ages, calling his current players the "worst group of seniors I've ever been associated with," saying they were "stealing money" by being on scholarship.
A sample: "We have a bunch of tin men out there right now," Knight said. "They've got no heart. I've never been around a team that's got so many problems as this one has. Usually you've got one or two guys that are a problem. We've got an infestation of guys that are hard to coach. I've never been around a group as a whole that are like that. Not one guy stands up."
Guess what? The Cardinals stood up. Senior guard Mike James led Knight's team on a six-game winning streak that culminated in a Southland Conference tournament championship Saturday night. Don't be fooled: Knight doesn't deserve credit for the turnaround. On Saturday, he admitted he "threw [his team] under the bus, and I was driving the bus." But Knight's overall coaching job is noteworthy. Last year, with essentially the same group -- all five starters are seniors -- Lamar finished 7-9 in the Southland and 13-17 overall. This year? They're 23-11 and -- somehow -- in the NCAA tournament.
If you needed another example of what makes March great, there you go.
Let the glorious games begin.
And let the good times roll.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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