Keeping Score

March Madness Begins: Five Underdogs Worth Pulling For

The upsets are what makes your office pool fun, right? These teams might not win, but you'll have a blast cheering them on

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Ted Richardson / Raleigh News & Observer / MCT / Getty

Loyola head coach Jimmy Patsos can't believe a foul called against his team during a game in Raleigh, North Carolina, on December 29, 2008.

Finally, March Madness has arrived. Are you one of those sports fans who only pays attention to college hoops these three weeks out of the year? You’re far from alone.

To win your office pool, you need to pick upsets. Sticking with just the top seeds – Kentucky, a factory for future NBA players, Syracuse, home of the confounding zone defense, North Carolina, annual tournament royalty, and physical Michigan State – rarely wins you first place. And since no one can really predict which Cinderella stories will emerge, you might as well pick the teams you’ll have fun rooting for. Here are Keeping Score’s fave five.

1. Lamar University. The Cardinals are coached by Pat Knight, son of one of the most divisive sports figures of all time, former Indiana University coach Bob Knight. No matter what you think of his old man, who was dubbed “The General,” you’ve got to admire Pat’s fire. On Feb 22., after Lamar – located in Beaumont, TX –  lost at home to Stephen F. Austin, Knight produced an epic postgame rant, directed towards the seniors on his team. “We’ve got the worst group of seniors right now that I’ve ever been associated with,” Knight told the assembled media. “Their mentality is awful. Their attitude is awful. It has been their M.O. for the last three years.”

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He’s just like his dad, that Pat. (If you’d like a refresher, here are some classic Bob Knight tirades.) “We’ve had problems with them off the court, on the court, classroom, drugs, being late for stuff,” he continued.  “All that stuff correlates together if you’re going to win games. You just can’t do all that B.S. and expect to win games. And if people have a problem with me being harsh about it, I don’t care. I came here to clean something up.”

As Knight later said, he not only threw his guys under the bus; he was driving it. But the Lamar players responded to their coach’s public berating. The team has rolled off six straight wins, took the Southland Conference tournament, and is headed to March Madness for the first time in a dozen years. Lamar, seeded 16th, plays fellow 16-seed Vermont on Tuesday in Dayton, for the privilege of playing North Carolina, in Greensboro, on Friday. We know, we know, a 16-seed has never won tournament game. But it has to happen eventually, right?

2. St. Bonaventure University. The Bonnies, who were on no one’s tournament radar a week ago, stole a bid from a heartbroken bubble team on Sunday afternoon when they defeated Xavier in the Atlantic 10 championship game, 67-56. We love it when small schools sneak in. St. Bonaventure, located some 70 miles south of Buffalo in Olean, N.Y. has about 2,000 undergrads. These teams give March Madness its charm.

Though tiny, St. Bonaventure has a big-time talent. Center Andrew Nicholson nearly recorded a rare triple-double combo against Xavier: he finished with 26 points, 14 rebounds, and 8 blocked shots. Nicholson, the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, is a legit NBA prospect, even though he didn’t start playing basketball until his junior year of high school. And unlike too many college jocks, Nicholson hasn’t slacked in the classroom: He’s a physics major. The 14th-seeded Bonnies face No. 3 Florida State, the ACC champs, on Friday in Nashville.

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3. Loyola (MD) University. Too often, college hoops is all about the coaches. That’s just natural. The players change every few years. (Or in the case of Kentucky, it seems like every year, as the Wildcats are fond of recruiting freshmen who bolt for the pros after one season.) Meanwhile, men like Mike Kryzyzewski, Roy Williams, and Jim Calhoun are mainstays.

So although we think coaches don’t deserve all of the attention, the spotlight fits Jimmy Patsos, who led Loyola to the MAAC title and its first tournament berth since 1994, just fine. You’ll get a kick out of watching him. He’s a former bartender who, at certain points during his team’s 48-44 win over Fairfield in the MAAC title game, screamed at a spectator in the crowd, chased his players down the floor, and generally appeared maniacal. During his halftime speech, Patsos invoked the Black Panthers in order to motivate his players. As Patsos explained in his post-game press conference, as per the Washington Post.

I talked about Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers,” Patsos, a former Maryland assistant, said. “I said there’s levels. There’s Martin Luther King. There’s Malcolm X. And I said I have saved Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers for the end. Sometimes you’ve got to get militant, and we’re getting militant, young men. And I told them about that.

“And I didn’t mean violence, I said we are gonna take it up a notch, and we are going to press on every make. Didn’t I, Erik?” he said, turning to forward Erik Etherly. “I said we are going full force. It’s time. Not that there’s anything with pacifism or middle-of-the road intellectualism, but I said it’s time for anger. Didn’t we tell them who Bobby Seale was? So they now know.

“So we just pressed. I said if we sit back they’re going to throw it into us, and they’re gonna get us in foul trouble, and we’re gonna foul out. So we’re gonna press 94 feet for 20 minutes and leave it all out. And if it works it works, if not, not. And it worked. Thank God they hid the fruit. They put the fruit in there these first couple of days, but they hid that.”

Fruit? Huh? Anyway, if the 15th-seeded Baltimore school, which plays no. 2 Ohio State on Thursday in Pittsburgh, can pull off an upset, Patsos might lose his mind. Who wouldn’t want to see that?

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4. South Dakota St. Aside from its cool nickname (the Jackrabbits!) and logo, South Dakota St. is worth recognizing for becoming the first school from the Mount Rushmore state – we totally had to look up that kinda lame nickname – to ever make the NCAA tournament (quick trivia: South Dakota State’s berth means there are now two states that have never sent a team to the NCAA tournament. Can you name them? Answer below). Guard Nate Wolters, who averages 21.3 points per game, finished the regular season ninth in the nation in scoring. The Jackrabbits wiped out Washington, a major conference bubble team, on the road by 19 points. A Great Plains team – one not named Kansas at least – is about due for a tournament run.

(Oh yeah, Alaska and Maine are now the lone states to never dance. Alaska has no Division 1 team – that’s a legit excuse. What’s yours, Black Bears?)

5. Belmont. The Music City school won the championship of its conference, the Atlantic Sun, for the fifth time in seven years. The Bruins have yet to pull off any first-round stunners, but they’re a statistical darling: according to rankings from noted college hoops quant Ken Pomeroy, which reward teams for their efficiency, Belmont is 23rd, making it the highest-ranked double-digit seed in the whole tournament (and Belmont is a 14th seed, showing that the selection committee isn’t swayed by Pomeroy’s system). Belmont faces Georgetown, a 3-seed, on Friday in Columbus, Ohio. For basketball purists, this could be a pretty game to watch, as Georgetown is known for throwing clever backdoor passes, and Belmont, which averages 17 assists per game, is also an unselfish bunch.

Hey, these teams may go 0-5. But so what? Part of the fun of March Madness is having a real rooting interest. And you’re probably not going to win your pool anyway. No offense. Enjoy filling out your brackets.

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