Which underdog upstart will doom your bracket?

OTHER VOICES

The Kickoff

March 16, 2006|By JOE GERGEN | JOE GERGEN,NEWSDAY

Bucknell isn't Bucknell anymore. Oh, the Bison are back in the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive year, but they're no longer the same charming underdog that wrecked office pools throughout the country last spring. They've become the establishment.

The Patriot League champion was awarded a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament. That's a higher line than the one occupied by North Carolina State of the ACC, Alabama of the SEC and Seton Hall of the Big East. No matter what the Bison do in their first game against No. 8 Arkansas tomorrow, it will not have the impact of a 14th seed taking down mighty Kansas.

Considering that Vermont, which stunned Syracuse as a 13th seed in 2005, did not qualify for the event, March Madness is in need of a new upstart. Which school will be the true successor to the Chattanooga choo-choo that derailed contenders in 1997? Where is the next Mouse McFadden that roared during Cleveland State's improbable victories in 1986?

You came to the right place for the answers. Let's start by throwing out all the 16 seeds because you have a better chance of winning the lottery than wagering on Princeton to overcome Georgetown. Now discard all the 12's because the spectacle of a No. 5 exiting in the first round has become commonplace (see Wisconsin-Milwaukee for details).

That leaves us with a dozen teams: Iona (vs. LSU), Bradley (vs. Kansas), Pacific (vs. BC) and Air Force (vs. Illinois) on line 13; Northwestern State (vs. Iowa), Xavier (vs. Gonzaga), Murray State (vs. North Carolina) and South Alabama (vs. Florida) on line 14; and Penn (vs. Texas), Belmont (vs. UCLA), Winthrop (vs. Tennessee) and Davidson (vs. Ohio State) on line 15.

Bradley, a former marquee program that twice reached the championship game in the 1950s, doesn't qualify. Neither does Xavier, an Elite Eight participant as recently as two years ago. Same with Penn, part of a Final Foursome with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in 1979, and Davidson, a serious contender under Lefty Driesell in the 1960s.

Pacific doesn't count because it won its first-round game in each of the last two years and South Alabama and Belmont are beaten before they start as the result of logistics. The Jaguars from Mobile get Florida in Jacksonville while the little Bruins from Nashville must face the big Bruins in San Diego. Don't wait up for the scores.

Of the remaining five, I'd be inclined to dismiss Northwestern State, Murray State and Iona because all three have a previous victory in the tournament. But the win by Northwestern, a Louisiana institution that will be making its second NCAA appearance (two more than prestigious Northwestern in Illinois), was posted in a 2001 play-in game.

The Racers, 1-12 overall in the tournament, haven't won since 1988 and how can you reject a school named Murray? Finally, although Iona has a reputation in the Northeast and an NCAA conquest dating back to the Jim Valvano era, it would qualify as a major curiosity in other parts of the country provided a typo doesn't confuse it with Iowa.

The other two, Winthrop and Air Force, are a combined 0-8 and therefore unsullied. They also have NCAA experience and favorable draws. Winthrop, the Big South winner, opposes a Tennessee team whose No. 2 seed was a reach and whose record includes four losses in its last six games. The site, Greensboro, is closer to Rock Hill than Knoxville and the Eagles won't be awed after playing the likes of Marquette (a win), Memphis and Alabama.

Then there is Air Force, which should receive added motivation from all the criticism heaped on the committee for its selection. "We felt that this was an outstanding team that is difficult to play," committee chair Craig Littlepage said in its defense.

The unlikely alliance of the Princeton offense and former NBA coach Jeff Bzdelik has produced surprising results and the Falcons can slow the tempo. That could spell trouble for Illinois, which likes to run but is a pale shadow of last year's national finalist. And it's easy to picture the Illini being distracted by the setting in San Diego.

Northwestern, Murray and Iona all have a shooter's chance in their games. As for the Eagles and Falcons, fly, baby, fly.

Joe Gergen writes for Newsday.

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