- Ron Buck
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The debate over top seeds, bubble teams and where teams were sent to play their first- and second-round games should start to quiet down a little in the next couple of days. And before we know it, the seedings and sites will become moot as upsets send the 65-team NCAA Tournament bracket into shambles by the weekend.
It happens every year. A double-digit seed decides to stick around a few extra days -- if not into the second week of the party -- and poof, Cinderella has emerged. Sometimes, with company.
As ESPN's own Dick Vitale pointed out Sunday night, a No. 10 seed has reached the Sweet 16 nine times -- which is exactly how many times a No. 2 seed has gotten to the second week since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. But there is also good reason to keep in mind the 11, 12 and 13 seeds. And we're going back way before Gonzaga decided to crash Sweet 16s on a regular basis.
Since '85, a double-digit seed has reached the Sweet 16 in 15 of 16 tournaments, and in 14 of those seasons, a team seeded 11-14 was still playing after the first weekend. Things got ridiculous in 1997, when UT-Chattanooga upset both No. 3 Georgia and No. 6 Illinois before losing to a 10th-seeded Providence.
That's where ESPN.com's Cinderella Watch comes into play. After a season of keeping an eye on the low- and mid-major teams in this year's NCAA Tournament, we offer a few things to keep aware of when filling out those brackets this week. For faithful followers of the Watch, the omission of Western Kentucky from the six teams below will be obvious. While we still considered the Hilltoppers a Cinderella team, the committee's decision (one of the few good ones) to give WKU a No. 9 seed in the Midwest sort of "promoted" the Hilltoppers from this Watch.Western Kentucky will certainly be considered a Cinderella story if it can get past Stanford on Thursday.
And, just remember, upsets aren't limited to those teams below.
The biggest knock on the other Blue Devils this season has been their lack of a marquee win. Well, if Central Connecticut is going to extend the nation's longest winning streak to 20 games, it'll be with a marquee win over the Big East West Division champions.
Why they have a shot: Anyone else thinking Kenyon Martin and Cincinnati in 1999? Well, you should be. And this upset is based solely on the health of the the Panthers' leader Brandin Knight. The Big East's co-player of the year says he'll be ready to play, and doctors have cleared him to play. But at what percent will the point guard play? And if he isn't his dominating self (15.6 ppg; 7.2 apg; 4.9 rpg), the Panthers have lost half of the biggest edge they have -- the backcourt. Central's Corsley Edwards can play with the Panthers' front line -- if not out-play Donates Zavackas and company. Edwards (15.4 ppg; 8.7 rpg) dominated the NEC, but was overmatched by Marcus Fizer in the first round of the 2000 NCAAs. This year, he won't have a player in a Pitt uniform who can shut him down -- if the NEC's player of the year plays and doesn't pout.
The Mid-American Conference is notorious for producing a dangerous tournament team. Kent State may be the most dangerous to date. The Golden Flashes are almost too good to be considered a Cinderella, but with a No. 10 seed we'll keep them fitted for a slipper.
Why they have a shot: Look at Kent's résumé: 17 wins to close out a MAC season like few teams have put together; three straight double-digit wins in the MAC conference tournament, which traditionally takes a beating on No. 1 seeds; and a first-round upset of Indiana in last year's NCAAs to draw inspiration from this season. Oh, and the first-round foe hasn't exactly been the most consistent top-25 team this season. Oklahoma State will have more athleticism, but don't sell the Golden Flashes short. Yes, they rely on a three-guard set without much inside punch, but senior Trevor Huffman (16.1 ppg; 4.4 apg; 3.0 rpg) is a major talent who just may find his way onto an NBA roster one day, while his backcourt mates Antoinio Gates and Andrew Mitchell each score 15 points a game. If the Cowboys don't play up to their potential -- and even if they do -- Kent will keep the game tight to the end. And that's when upsets usually happen.
The Rainbow Warriors flew more miles than any other team in the country, while also flying under the national radar. In case you weren't paying attention, or going to sleep before 4 a.m. ET, the 'Bows won the WAC regular season and conference tournament championships. They pulled off the double for the second straight season on main WAC rival Tulsa's home court in the title game. Road tested, NCAA-approved, to say the least.
Why they have a shot: If this game were played one-on-one between David West and Predrag Savovic, we'd give the edge to Xavier. But, as teams go, the seedings could easily be reversed. Hawaii is playing for respect and for its first NCAA Tournament victory. This is its best shot to get both, against an Atlantic 10 champion that may be getting a little more respect than its season deserves. The trick here might be for Hawaii to just let West get his (18.5 ppg; 9.8 rpg) and shut down the rest of the Musketeers. No disrespect to Romain Sato or Lionel Chalmers, because Xavier is certainly more than West, but the Warriors ranked in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense, so limiting the damage done by one or two players on the perimeter shouldn't be a problem. Sovovic, however, could be for Xavier. The leader of Hawaii's international exchange program, Savovic averaged 20 points (74 in three WAC tournament wins) this season once he became eligible, and his versatility makes other Warriors like Carl English and Mike McIntyre that much better. Good enough, to at least win a game in the NCAAs.
The three-season rebuilding project at San Diego State is complete. And, how's this for a trip down memory lane: Steve Fisher back in the NCAA Tournament playing a Big Ten team in the first round.
Why they have a shot: The Aztecs aren't exactly a group of castoffs. But, let's just say SDSU wasn't the first stop for most of Fisher's players. Tony Bland (15.7 ppg; 3.4 apg; 4.0 rpg) started and played in the NCAAs for Syracuse. Brandon Smith started at Michigan. Randy Holcomb (17.2 ppg; 9.2 rpg) played for Tarkanian at Fresno State, while Deandre Moore started his career at Vanderbilt and Mike Mackell was the California JC player of the year in 2000. Oh, and then there is walk-on Al Faux, who only became the Aztecs' second-leading scorer at nearly 17 points a game while shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range. Sometimes, second choices (second chances?) are better than the first ones made by 18-year-olds. Nevertheless, this group is as talented as any team outside of the top 25. And that makes them troublesome for a team like the Illini, which hasn't played every game like a top 25 team this season. The Aztecs may have taken a full season to gell, but anyone who watched them beat BYU, Wyoming and UNLV to win the Mountain West tournament title will agree that when the pieces are playing together, the package is pretty impressive. And we haven't even mentioned Fisher's pension for winning NCAA Tournament games -- not to mention championships.
Valparaiso and Cinderella: Two words that just go together this time of the season. The Crusaders don't have Bryce to hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, but Homer may have have a better overall team than when his son was around to beat Mississippi en route to the 1998 Sweet 16. (Has it been that long?)
Why they have a shot: Is there a team in the country waiting for its season to end more than the Wildcats? For all the talk of Tubby Smith's teams being so tough in March, the Wildcats looked ready to pack it in during their SEC quarterfinal game. Valpo would like nothing more than to be the team that sends UK packing. The Crusaders don't have the athletes or talent to match up with the Wildcats, but they also lack the turmoil that has hung over Lexington's soap opera. On the court, Valpo played Kansas and Arizona tough this season -- losing both games by a combined 12 points. Kentucky got all it wanted from Holy Cross in last year's first round. Valpo is much better than the Crusaders, something the those who follow the exploits of UK basketball can't say about a group of Wildcats who have been dubbed "Team Turmoil".
Isn't it ironic? All year we've said Gonzaga shouldn't be Cinderella, and now here they are trying to avoid what they've done to the likes of Virginia, Louisville and Minnesota the past three years. But don't blame us. Blame the committee for giving them a seed that lends itself to an upset. Not even we think the Zags would be in danger if, say, they were given the proper respect of a top 10 team.
Why they have a shot: As for the Cowboys, they too were dissed a little by the folks in Indiana with an 11 seed. All they did was sweep Utah during the regular season en route to winning the MWC's title. Yes, they slipped up in Vegas, losing to a team on this Watch themselves. But winning 11 of 14 during the regular season and having to go on the road (losing by just six at Texas Tech where the Red Raiders lost just once all season) to play anyone respectable outside the MWC are two reasons to like the Pokes. Wyoming's personnel is another reason they've got a shot to knock off Gonzaga. Guards Marcus Bailey and Donta Richardson won't be overmatched by Dan Dickau or Blake Stepp, while Uche Nsonwu-Amadi and cousin Ugo Udezue will be happy to bang inside with Cory Violette and Zach Gourde. And besides, isn't karma just bound to work against the Zags sooner or later in March?
Ron Buck is the college basketball editor at ESPN.com.
The teams we've watched all season are now 2002's potential Cinderella stories.