Falcons fit right in with Sweet 16 regulars

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Duke was just "here," meaning this city about an hour from the Blue Devils' campus where the ACC tournament was held. That was three weeks ago. But also, Duke was "just here" meaning the Sweet 16 last season. In fact, it's 10 seasons in a row that the Blue Devils have made it at least this far.

Top-seeded Duke's opponent Saturday (ESPN, 2 ET), No. 4 seed Rutgers, was also in the Sweet 16 last season. And the No. 3 seed here, Arizona State, last made it this far in 2005.

Which brings us to the No. 7 Bowling Green Falcons, for whom this is all shiny, new, cool stuff. The Falcons aren't just in their first Sweet 16, it's also the first appearance for the Mid-American Conference.

We figured a team from Ohio would be in regional semis … but that team would be Dayton No. 4 seed Ohio State. However, the Buckeyes, of course, got out-Foxed by Marist. The Falcons are still dancing.

"We have nothing to lose," Bowling Green coach Curt Miller said, "and really view ourselves as the underdog and the party crashers."

Well, OK … but more accurately, Bowling Green is good enough to be at this party in the first place. The Falcons spent most of the season ranked, with their only losses at Notre Dame (by four points in overtime), against Duke on a neutral court in Cancun, Mexico, and at home against rival Ohio.

Beyond that, though, let's look at whom Bowling Green beat to get to Greensboro. The Falcons rallied to defeat Oklahoma State -- another orange team -- in the NCAA's first round. The Cowgirls had a solid Big 12 season, and that was a big sign that Bowling Green was a very strong No. 7.

Then came Miller's "signature win" thus far: beating second-seeded Vanderbilt in the second round. It was just a few weeks ago that, in the SEC tournament, the Commodores beat LSU, which had beat Tennessee.

No, the Falcons might not be ready to join the SEC … but Bowling Green isn't here on a "fluke pass," either. Two years ago in Seattle, if the then-No. 13 Falcons had hit a few free throws at critical moments in the second half, they just might have upset No. 4 seed Kansas State in the NCAA's first round. As it was, the Falcons lost by 10, and I remember thinking that night, "Watch out for these guys."

Last year, Bowling Green was a No. 12 seed and lost by 13 to No. 5 UCLA.

"We dug ourselves a hole," Miller said of that defeat to the Bruins, "but we played a really great second half."

This year, the Falcons entered the NCAA Tournament no longer feeling like it was just great, giddy fun to be included. And Miller has stayed more true to his personality this postseason -- more emotional and fired up -- than what he has done the previous two years in the NCAA Tournament, when he said he tried too hard to keep his players "calm."

Still, Bowling Green goes into Saturday's matchup (ESPN, noon ET) an underdog not just on the seeding line, but in terms of bodies. Coach Charli Turner Thorne's crew is deeper and has had success wearing down even other deep teams. The Falcons aren't deep. One player's departure and a couple of ACL injuries have left Bowling Green with just nine in uniform.

So the Sun Devils will attempt to exhaust them. And force a lot of turnovers. Nothing Bowling Green hasn't seen already this year, but this is the big stage.

"You've seen the first two rounds how they've worn down opponents," Miller said. "That is an issue for us with their depth. [But] we are living in the moment and trying to enjoy every second we have left with a very, very special senior class."

Nope. There are no party crashers here.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.