Looking for something more improbable than Bob Knight's successor taking Texas Southern to the NCAA tournament in a year the Hoosiers didn't go? Try Cal Poly (67) earning its first-ever tournament bid with a 13-19 record. Or maybe Mount St. Mary's (66) finishing 16-16 but blowing out established NEC power Robert Morris to get here. Or Weber State (65) making an NCAA tournament appearance two years after Portland Trail Blazers Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard departed the school. Or a center from Coastal Carolina (64) named El Hadji Ndieguene being recognized by fans in an Orlando Wal-Mart? Or Wisconsin-Milwaukee (63) being picked to finish last in the Horizon League before knocking off Green Bay en route to the Horizon tourney crown? Or Louisiana-Lafayette (62) upsetting previously dominant Georgia State? Or Albany (61) going dancing despite wearing -- or maybe because of? -- the goofiest purple-and-yellow uniforms in the sport.
Great stories are everywhere in the high-seed weeds. None was as heart-wrenching as Aerris Smith's. Last week, Smith, a Wofford (60) reserve forward, grabbed four crucial rebounds in the Terriers' 56-53 SoCon title win over Western Carolina. Immediately after the game, Smith announced that he was having season-ending microfracture knee surgery.
"I made a decision: I was going to give my all in this tournament, and they were going to dance without me," Smith said, his voice breaking through tears. "But that's OK. Because we came out on top."
We weren't joking about the number of viable mid-major upset threats in the bracket. They're everywhere. Let's scout them:
Western Michigan (59): The Broncos turn the ball over all the time, but it's worth fearing any team that handled MAC favorite and onetime at-large hopeful Toledo so effortlessly.
Eastern Kentucky (58): The Colonels out-Belmont'd Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference, which is to say they scored a bunch of points. They enter the tournament with the second-highest 2-point field goal percentage in the country.
American (57): American recorded an assist on 65.7 percent of its field goals this season, the highest figure in college hoops, while shooting 55.7 percent from 2 and 38.2 percent from 3.
Mercer (56): We should be cross with the Bears for knocking out Florida Gulf Coast and robbing us of Dunk City 2.0, but the chance to see 6-foot-4 combo guard Langston Hall in tourney play is an acceptable palliative.
Tulsa (55): Danny Manning makes his first head-coaching appearance in the narrow tournament he once ruled like a Colossus with a team that started 10-12 (!) with two losses to TCU (!!) before it rattled off 11 straight wins.
New Mexico State (54): Sim Bhullar, the 7-5 center, was a quirky story a couple of years ago. Now he's the symbolic and literal centerpiece of the tallest team in the country -- one that uses that height to dominate the interior on both ends of the floor.
North Carolina Central (53): Four teams in the country forced opponents into more turnovers per possession than LeVelle Morton's Eagles did. VCU and Louisville were two of them.
Delaware (52): The Blue Hens A) have arguably the best nickname in the tournament and B) committed fewer turnovers per possession than all but three teams in the country. Wisconsin was one of them.