NCAA Tournament: The Little Guys

One of the best things about the Big Dance is the opportunity for schools who normally get little to no publicity — athletic or otherwise — a chance to shine on national television. Here are five schools that will be playing in the Big Dance that you may not know much about.

WESTERN KENTUCKY
Location: Bowling Green, Kentucky
Nickname: Hilltoppers
Enrollment: 20,712

It's been quite an enchanted year for Western Kentucky, where in both major sports they started out awfully only to turn down their seasons in remarkable fashion.

In football, they started out 0-4, including a 44-16 drubbing at the hands of Division 1-AA Indiana State, and they looked very much like the worst team in Division 1-A.

They would go on to lose just one more game, at LSU, a game they were in until late in the third quarter, and they were widely considered to be the biggest bowl snub of the postseason.

A month ago, the basketball team was languishing at 8-17. But something happened, and they rolled off two straight wins to close out the regular season and then won four games in four days to take down the Sun Belt conference tournament. They then beat Mississippi Valley State in the play-in game after rallying from down 15 in the second half.

It's almost as if God is a Western Kentucky fan, and He resists meddling in their affairs until the chips are down. The fans have to be pleased, too, to be playing Kentucky in the first round — er, sorry, the second round, the NCAA is pretending the play-in games are the "first" round now — in a game that has the state buzzing and against a team that a lot of the Hilltopper players grew up rooting for.

They have, in my opinion, a pleasing towel-waving logo and a truly bizarre, Grimace lookalike mascot.

SOUTH DAKOTA STATE
Location: Brookings, South Dakota
Nickname: Jackrabbits
Enrollment: 12,725

There's an old joke that goes like this: a bear and a rabbit are in the forest. The bear turns to the rabbit and says, "Do you have a problem with poop sticking to your fur?" The rabbit replies, "No." So the bear picks up the rabbit and wipes his butt with it.

That is the expected result when the Baylor Bears take on the South Dakota State Jackrabbits in this year's tournament. It is indeed SDSU's first rodeo, having just recently moved up from Division II. Oral Roberts was widely expected to win the Summit League tournament, but an upset at the hands of Western Illinois paved the way for the Jackrabbits. And they might be able to give Baylor a game — they absolutely pounded Pac-12 regular season champs Washington 92-73 earlier in the year.

At SDSU, they call their Homecoming Festivities "Hobo Day" and their university currency is called Hobo Dough.

ST. BONAVENTURE
Location: Olean, New York
Nickname: Bonnies
Enrollment: 2,000

First of all, let me say I hate schools whose nickname is nothing more than a riff on their school name, such as the St. Bonaventure Bonnies. There is a school in Smithville, Ohio, not far from where I grew up, called the Smithville Smithies. Ugh.

Second of all, St. Bona deserved a higher seed than the No. 14 they got. Winning the Atlantic 10 tournament is impressive from a conference that netted two at-large berths.

St. Bonaventure bills itself as the largest undergraduate Franciscan university in the English-speaking world. Considering they clock in at just over 2,000 students, there must not be much competition. And if you thought they were done with puns when they nicknamed their sports teams, let me tell you about their newspaper, The Bona Venture.

Finally, I have a brilliant suggestion for a St. Bona student festival. Since they are located in Olean, which is just an R and an S shy of being "New Orleans" (minus the "New" of course) then why don't they have a spring blowout party called Madi Ga? Get it?

NORFOLK STATE
Location: Norfolk, Virginia
Nickname: Spartans
Enrollment: 5,400

Norfolk State has, for my money, one of the most badass logos in college athletics. The Spartans came out of the gate this year with both guns blazing. In the Virgin Island Paradise Jam tournament, they upset Drexel (probably the biggest snub in this year's Big Dance) and TCU before losing a squeaker to Marquette, the third seed in the West region, by two in the championship game.

Norfolk State has made its mark by recruiting heavily in NYC — ESPN New York had a nice feature on this — and with Kyle O'Quinn, who's in the top 10 nationally in rebounding.

NSU was once a powerhouse Division II program, but this is their first Division I tournament.

DETROIT
Location: Detroit, Michigan
Nickname: Titans
Enrollment: 5,450

How quickly the Horizon League has fallen. From Butler's back-to-back championship game appearances and three teams in the Big Dance a few years ago to only mustering a single No. 15 seed this year.

Detroit is actually the University of Detroit Mercy, a small Jesuit college. Betcha don't know the big university in Detroit. That would be Wayne State, which with 32,000 students is one of the largest schools in the country not to compete in Division I.

UDM is the school that gave us Dick Vitale, and for that, we do not thank them. He coached the school from 1973-77 to much success, which put him on the map.

So what are their chances at beating Kansas? Well, they did knock off St. John's earlier this year, and they played Notre Dame, Alabama, and Mississippi close, so I would expect this to be much closer than your typical No. 2 vs. No. 15 game.

Comments and Conversation

March 16, 2012

me:

Well, one of those five actually made it through!

Interesting article…I miss Butler though.

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