Tourney surprises make names on Web

In the early rounds of the NCAA tournament, it's good to be the little guy.

It's the Big Dance, after all. We root for the underdog. We want Cinderella stories and upsets, not chalk.

The less we know about a team the more there is to find out, and the bigger a team can blow up on the Web.

Need proof? Head to Google Trends, which tracks the top search terms daily. On March 18, the first day of the tournament, Lehigh University was the No. 2 most-searched phrase; Murray State ranked fourth; Robert Morris University sixth; Sam Houston State University 11th; Ohio University 15th.

Of the bigger-name universities playing that day, only Villanova cracked the top 20.

It's a trend that continued the next day, March 19. Wofford College ranked No. 2 for the day, while Morgan State, Siena and Lehigh all cracked the top 20.

No name teams to speak of.

By Saturday, when Saint Mary's (the seventh most-searched phrase) and Northern Iowa (the third most-searched phrase) punched their tickets to the Sweet 16, individual players started to pop up: Ali Farokhmanesh of UNI ranked ninth, while the Gaels' big man, Omar Samhan, ranked 17th.

Armon Bassett of Ohio was a trending topic on Twitter after his 32-point performance in a win over Georgetown on March 18.

ESPN.com searches skewed to the more popular squads from Thursday to Sunday, but teams such as Cornell and Northern Iowa cracked the top 11 for searches on NCAA-specific squads.

So what does all this mean?

On a surface level, it shows the cultural cachet of the first weekend of March Madness. When seemingly everyone fills out a bracket and has a stake in the outcome of these games, and tournament coverage dominates the media, it creates an environment in which people are going to search the Web -- mainly the industry leader, Google -- for topics about the tournament.

What's water-cooler fodder turns into Web fodder, and vice versa.

But why the little guys?

Well, people are going to seek out knowledge on things they don't know. So when these little schools pop up on their radar for the first time in something they're following, inquiring minds will Google.

But it's also about what's now, what's fresh, what's grabbing people's attention this very instant.

So when Kansas lost to Northern Iowa and Villanova lost to Saint Mary's on Saturday, we have both forces at work here: Two unknown entities rocketing to the top of the country's consciousness.

And after seeing both underdog teams twice, people are drilling down to a deeper level for even more information about these teams. It's not just "Northern Iowa" and "Saint Mary's" being the darlings of the tournament; both teams now have a face in the forms of Farokhmanesh and Samhan -- and the top search topics reflect that.

As the Sweet 16 is whittled down to the Elite Eight, Final Four and the eventual national championship game, two things are likely:

1. Northern Iowa and Saint Mary's have a greater chance of being eliminated, erasing them from the immediate "what's hot" public consciousness, and thus are less likely to trend as high.

2. Because these teams already ranked high in searches this past weekend, they might not trend quite as high as before, even if they pull out a win or two this weekend. Sure, they'll still be the darlings of the tournament, and media coverage will continue to tell the story of the plucky underdog. But the Internet moves fast. It's rare that something can dominate chatter for longer than a few hours, let alone a few days.

The Web is a one-night stand; it picks up what's new and hot for a short time, then it's on to the next one. It's a chew-it-up-and-spit-it-out society.

But for that moment when critical mass is reached and the smaller schools that advance dominate the public consciousness?

Guys like Farokhmanesh and Samhan stand to gain the most publicity.

Ryan Corazza is a freelance writer and Web designer based in Chicago.