Jump on the mid-major bandwagon
You have done this every March, so you know how it goes. You've filled out your office pool entry, but it will be rendered completely useless after all the first-round upsets you miss. That Zen bracket-filling technique you've been boasting about all week will be a spectacular failure. And since you invested only five or 10 bucks, it's your pride that's demolished, not your bank account.
But this year, there will be an upstart mid-major teen-seed that captures your imagination on Thursday or Friday. By the time Saturday's second-round games roll around, you'll be that team's No. 1 fan. You'll have printed out the players' bios and memorized their stats, and there will be a T-shirt from the online bookstore on its way to your doorstep.
You, my friend, are within 48 hours of having a new favorite team.
So concede the office pool to the clueless secretary or stockroom boy, and do it now. Money won't buy them love. Here, by seed number, are the low-seeded teams with the best chances to survive and advance at the Big Dance ... and move right into your heart.
No. 11 seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee
What's to like: A few of the things you liked last year have been replaced. Bruce Pearl leveraged last year's Sweet 16 run into the Tennessee job, and last year's Horizon League Player of the Year, Ed McCants, graduated. New coach Rob Jeter spent the season molding the team into his image, transforming the flashy, fast, jersey-popping squad that won America over last March into a defense-first, fundamentals-are-fun team.
How they can beat No. 6 Oklahoma (Thursday, 12:55 p.m. ET): If the RPI took into account the closeness of wins, there's no way the Sooners would have rated No. 16. Before their 69-63 quarterfinal exit to Nebraska and 72-48 thrashing by Texas in the regular season finale, the Sooners solidified their tournament résumé with four straight one-point victories over sub-.500 Big 12 teams (and in three of those games, they were outshot). Their last solid win came all the way back on Feb. 1 against eventual 12th-seeded Texas A&M (71-63), so the Sooners are limping into the Dance. The outsized Panthers' primary concern will be putting big bodies on both Kevin Bookout and Taj Gray, but Wisconsin-Milwaukee grabs more rebounds (34.8-33.4 rpg) than OU does. If the Panthers are able to push the tempo beyond the Sooners' preferred sluggish pace, their superior turnover rate (19.2 percent to 21.3 percent) and offensive options across the size scale could carry them forward. Again.
Mascot factor: Sexy, jet-black Victor E. Panther has prowled the Wisconsin-Milwaukee end line for more than 15 years and stars in the college's welcome video. According to the school's Web site, "He is a favorite among not only children, but adults as well."
No. 12 seed Utah State
What's to like: As the story goes, the selection committee watched the Aggies' valiant overtime loss in the WAC title game and collectively said, "That's a tournament team." Those of us who've been watching them all year knew that all along, and the Big West ex-pats (23-8, 13-6) would have looked even more impressive if Nevada wasn't so darned awesome. USU has a potent inside-outside combo with big Nate Harris ( 17.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and little Jaycee Carroll (17.1 ppg), and even bigger Cass Matheus can sneak in and punish you inside if you have those two solved. Stew Morrill is one of the best-kept secrets in coaching: His teams wait patiently for the right shot, and when they get it, they usually make it.
How they can beat No. 5 Washington (Thursday, 9:55 p.m. ET): If there's one thing the Aggies can do, it's score: They were among the leaders in field-goal percentage when they were in the Big West, and it translated to the more high-profile WAC (49.8 percent field goal percentage, fourth in Division I). If there's another thing they can do, it's find people who are in a position to score: Their 17.9 assists per game places them fifth in the country, and their assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4) is also fifth nationwide. They take their sweet time doing it, too; their 65.6 possessions per 40 minutes puts them 288th of 334 teams in the speed index. Washington is fifth (78.0 possessions per 40), so whichever team controls the tempo wins this game. And USU has been practicing for this date all season, luring up-tempo WAC teams such as Fresno State and Boise State into its tangled web.
Mascot factor: Big Blue is a big blue bull who wears double-zero. In addition to cheering on the Aggies, he's also written a children's book ("My Friend Big Blue") that teaches kids that they should set goals in life.
No. 13 seed Pacific
What's to like: Pacific's old Big West enemy, Utah State, is gone. But this season wasn't a cakewalk for the Tigers: They lost to last-place UC Riverside in January before finishing strong, roaring to their third consecutive season with 24 or more wins and their third straight tournament trip. This is the triumphant senior season for Christian Maraker, the 6-foot-9 Swede who helped the Tigers get to the round of 32 two straight years, a player who made Bill Self literally drool after a November Kansas-Pacific tilt last season. And you'll recall that the Tigers have struck twin first-round blows for the Big West against the Big East, beating Providence in 2004 and Pittsburgh in 2005. And if you think about it, the West is bigger than the East -- lots more land out there.
How they can beat No. 4 Boston College (Thursday, 12:40 p.m. ET): Every team has weaknesses of some sort, and when you're able to cover them up with strategy, that's great coaching. Al Skinner's BC boys don't rebound (32.2 rpg, seventh in the Big East), don't steal the ball (6.2, 251st in D-I) and don't play defense with No. 4 seed efficiency (.998 points against per defensive possession, 175th in the land). Instead, the Eagles slow the game down (66.7 possessions per 40 minutes) so their shooters can shine (13th-best nationally at 48.4 percent field goal shooting), resulting in the fourth most efficient offense in the country (1.116 points per possession). That's a lot of numbers. Pacific was first in the Big West in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and its calling card is the long bomb. If Pacific can poke enough holes in the Eagles' D, it'll make BC appear as sluggish as it looked against UWM in last year's second round.
Mascot factor: There's no one happier about USU's Big West exit than Powercat. The giant man-sized tiger lost in ESPNZone's Big West Mascot Challenge last year to Big Blue, in a contest that went down to the final event (arm-wrestling). Powercat's still sore about having to publicly hand over the trophy he had won the previous two years, but must be glad that his toughest competition is now UC Irvine's Peter the Anteater.
No. 14 seed Murray State
What's to like: Last year, Murray State lost its starting point guard to the law and the season to a conference quarterfinal upset against Southeast Missouri State, so it wasn't able to come close to its 28-win campaign of 2003-04. But Murray State came back loaded and intact this year, looking to return to the NCAA Tournament, and it went 19-3 in its league, sweeping both the regular season and tourney titles. The Racers are the very definition of selflessness, as evidenced by their eighth-in-the-nation assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3); five players average at least nine points per contest but none more than 11.
How they can beat No. 3 North Carolina (Friday, 9:30 p.m. ET): It won't be easy, but Mick Cronin's crew has consistently found a way to score this season. In the obscure stat of floor percentage -- measuring the rate of possessions that result in at least one point -- the Racers rate 16th nationally (53.5 percent), just two steps behind UNC (53.7 percent). The young Heels turn the ball over a lot -- a whole lot (22.2 percent turnover rate, 236th in D-I). If Murray can cause UNC to cough it up at that clip, it'll have a lot more chances to work its floor show and an opportunity to create some March magic.
Mascot factor: Murray State's mascot is a living horse named Racer 1. As such, he is not allowed into basketball arenas, per NCAA guidelines and general standards of good taste. During football games, though, Racer 1 goes around a circular track after every MSU score.
No. 15 seed Winthrop
What's to like: The Eagles didn't lose any starters to graduation last summer, so this is basically the same team that pushed Gonzaga to the edge in a 3-versus-14 game last March. They also finally received the in-season battle test they've been waiting years for, from Buzz Peterson's 20-win Coastal Carolina squad. Winthrop offers two devastating midsize offensive weapons: 6-5 Torrell Martin (13.9 ppg) and 6-6 James Shuler (13.4 ppg), and a big 6-10 New Zealander in the middle named Craig Bradshaw, who is athletic enough to quarterback the "press now, ask questions later" full-court swarm. And the only senior of the three is Shuler, so this isn't Gregg Marshall's last stand.
How they can beat No. 2 Tennessee (Thursday, 2:50 p.m. ET): Tennessee might not have anything left in the tank; even during those exclusive inside-the-program bits on "SportsCenter" this week, they look completely drained. And the most overrated No. 2 seed in tournament history goes up against the most underrated 15th-seeded team ever: The tired Vols, who've lost four of six, can expect to be pressured, defensively solved (UT's D gives up .992 points per possession, 162nd in D-I) and possibly outrebounded. Winthrop's 33.1 rpg was higher on the national glass-cleaning charts than Tennessee's 30.9.
Mascot factor: Big Stuff the Eagle is both big and has the stuff -- very few mid-major mascots can step to his hot hip-hop moves (other than Western Kentucky's Big Red, that is). But WU has one of the more interesting mascot traditions in all of D-I: Until the '70s, every freshman class at this formerly all-female teacher's college voted on its own mascot. In 1977, the eagle stuck.
No. 16 seed Oral Roberts
What's to like: Don't call them Cinderellas. Call them wolves in sheep's clothing. This ORU team had its heart broken last year by Oakland, which beat ORU on the Eagles' home floor on a last-second shot. The Eagles have two solid big guys (Caleb Green, 20.8 ppg, 8.9 rpg; Larry Owens, 8.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg). And they're riding the emotional wave provided by Ken Tutt, their shooting guard who missed a month after breaking a foot in January, only to return and earn Mid-Con tournament MVP honors. And ORU's court in Tulsa is emblazoned with the words: "Expect a miracle." The Eagles are so ready for this.
How they can beat No. 1 Memphis (Friday, 2:50 p.m. ET): Don't laugh, this can be done. Harvard did it to Stanford in the 1998 women's tournament, so why not here? ORU has superior offensive numbers to Memphis: Check out field-goal percentage (45.8 percent to 44.7), 3s (38.7 percent to 35.2) and points per shot (1.10 to 1.08). The Golden Eagles' front line is not the flimsy cheesecloth of most No. 16 seeds: The first three (Owens, Green and Mickey Michalec) actually outsize Memphis' front line (Shawne Williams, Rodney Carney and Joey Dorsey), averaging 6-9, 243 pounds against 6-8, 231 pounds. And Memphis fouls so much (21.6 fpg, 17th-most in D-I) that ORU will have ample opportunities to practice its 70.8 percent foul shooting. If there's a 16-over-1 miracle that's within reach, it's this one. If they can pull it off, Tutt, Green and Owens will enter the pantheon of nationally beloved tournament heroes.
Mascot factor: ELI the Golden Eagle hatched out of a papier-mâché egg during a dramatic ceremony in 1993, so this is his first tournament. ORU hasn't been here since 1984, when its teams were still known as the Titans (an influx of East Coast students in the 1960s led to adoption of the New York Jets' initial nickname). Oral Roberts students prefer that you use all uppercase, because ELI is actually an acronym: Education, Life skills and Integrity.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a daily contributor to ESPN.com.
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