No underdogs, but still some folks to cheer for in Sweet 16


By Eddie Pells - AP Sports Writer



VCU: Vanquished.

Yale: Back to class.

Hawaii: Said Aloha.

Stephen F. Austin: History.

Looking for that only-in-March underdog to cheer for in the Sweet 16? Not gonna find them.

Instead, the tally of teams left in the NCAA Tournament reads like a Who’s Who list of college basketball’s best program: All four No. 1 seeds advanced, and even the so-called underdogs — No. 10 Syracuse and No. 11 Gonzaga — aren’t looking or acting like them.

Most casual fans (whose brackets are already obliterated) would naturally gravitate toward the underdog. Sans that, here’s a quick look at the 16 teams left, and why you just might want to pull for them anyway. (Seeding in parenthesis)

KANSAS (1 SOUTH)

Heartstrings: Wayne Selden wears a white-and-pink wristband as a shout-out to 9-year-old Karis Selk, who has been diagnosed with brain cancer.

Underdog cred: It’s a reach here, but their two best players, Selden and Perry Ellis, are upperclassmen who will not be NBA lottery picks.

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NORTH CAROLINA (1 EAST)

Heartstrings: It’s almost a sure deal that the coach, Roy Williams, will cry at some point, publically, in the next two weeks.

Underdog cred: Before this year, they had gone a whopping four seasons without getting their hands on the ACC regular-season or tournament titles.

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VIRGINIA (1 MIDWEST)

Heartstrings: Coach Tony Bennett’s father, Dick, was a coaching lifer who came up with the vaunted “Pack Line Defense” that befuddles opponents to this day. Can Tony win the title that eluded his dad?

Underdog cred: There was a lot of headshaking when the Cavaliers got a No. 1 seed. And let’s face it — this team has not lived up to the hype the two seasons before this. Seeded first or second three years straight and still looking for a Final Four.

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OREGON (1 WEST)

Seed: No. 1 in West

Heartstrings: Phil Richmond is the son of former NBA star Mitch Richmond. Phil was a team manager who asked coach Dana Altman if he could walk on this year. Altman said yes. If Richmond steps foot on the court in the next two weeks, especially if the Ducks are cruising to a victory, it’ll be a nice moment.

Underdog cred: Like Virginia, the Ducks were widely disputed as a No. 1 seed. Unlike Virginia, the Ducks actually came out and played down to expectations — falling behind by seven late to St. Joe’s before pulling out the win and trip to the Sweet 16.

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OKLAHOMA (2 WEST)

Heartstrings: Backup center Akolda Manyang missed last Sunday’s game, and will miss Thursday’s game against Texas A&M, because of the death of his brother, Ater. “We’re playing for AK right now,” Oklahoma’s Khadeem Lattin said.

Underdog cred: Two meetings with Kansas, including one when the teams were ranked 1-2 in the AP Poll, have resulted in two close losses for the Sooners. A third meeting would not be the worst thing for the Final Four.

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VILLANOVA (2 SOUTH)

Heartstrings: Coach Jay Wright and his star guard, Ryan Arcidiacono, are each from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and went to rival high schools. That’s why the coach-player relationship might feel a bit more like father-son.

Underdog cred: Playing the try-try-again card. ‘Nova failed to get out of the first weekend as a 1 or 2 seed the last two years.

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TEXAS A&M (3 WEST)

Heartstrings: Coach Billy Kennedy has Parkinson’s disease. “The biggest challenge I’ve ever had,” he calls it.

Underdog cred: They were down 12 to Northern Iowa with 35 seconds left and are still here. Need we say more?

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MIAMI (3 SOUTH)

Heartstrings: If you see guard Angel Rodriguez blowing a kiss skyward after another big win, know that the kiss is going to his father, who was killed in Puerto Rico when Rodriguez was 2.

Underdog cred: Easy. The coach is Jim Larranaga, who brought George Mason to the Final Four in 2006 as an 11 seed, which makes us ask every year: “Who is this year’s George Mason?”

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DUKE (4 WEST)

Heartstrings: The letter from the 3-year-old Duke fan, tweeted out on the official team website dukeblueplanet, from a young boy lauding the team for bouncing back nicely from the loss of forward Amile Jefferson.

Underdog cred: Jefferson’s loss certainly left the Blue Devils short-handed and put them in the second tier of title contenders.

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IOWA STATE (4 MIDWEST)

Heartstrings: In addition to having to replace coach Fred Hoiberg and fire his football coach, athletic director Jamie Pollard is a little more than a year removed from a heart attack and open-heart surgery.

Underdog cred: This team’s only Final Four appearance came in 1944 — before it was known as the Final Four, and when the tournament started with only eight teams.

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INDIANA (5 EAST)

Heartstrings: Athletic director Fred Glass shaved his head before the tournament to show support for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a leader in pediatric cancer research.

Underdog cred: Not that anyone thinks “Underdog” when they think “Indiana Hoosiers,” but they did beat Kentucky to get to this point, and next face North Carolina. Enough said.

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MARYLAND (5 SOUTH)

Heartstrings: Maryland cheerleader Kathryn Brown is a liver transplant survivor after suffering from a rare form of liver cancer. “She’s like a miracle child. Every time I see her, I get chills,” Brown’s mom, Leslie Savary, told The Baltimore Sun.

Underdog cred: First trip to Sweet 16 since 2003 and Terrapins aren’t making it look easy: They struggled in wins over No. 12 South Dakota State and No. 13 Hawaii.

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NOTRE DAME (6 EAST)

Heartstrings: A couple recently endowed the coaching position at Notre Dame with a $5 million gift. Why? Among the charities that have honored coach Mike Brey are: The March of Dimes, the American Heart Association and the V Foundation.

Underdog cred: This team came painfully close to knocking off Kentucky in the Elite Eight last year in what was probably the tournament’s best game.

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WISCONSIN (7 EAST)

Heartstrings: Assistant coach Lamont Paris had to leave the team earlier this month to be with his mother in the hospital. “A very emotional time, obviously,” Paris told the team website. “This arena, basketball in itself, has always been a place where I’ve been able to kind of lose myself.”

Underdog cred: OK, they’re the national runners-up from last year. Still, how many teams faced with rebuilding have their coach retire in midseason and still make it this far?

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SYRACUSE (10 MIDWEST)

Heartstrings: “It was crushing. My heart was broken for him, and during the games, I couldn’t even look at him,” Juli Boeheim to The New York Post, about the nine-game suspension for NCAA infractions that her husband, Jim, served to start the season.

Underdog cred: Only one of the 16 teams left that shouldn’t have been in the tournament at all, according to most Bracketologists.

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GONZAGA (11 MIDWEST)

Heartstrings: Gonzaga’s effort to keep center Przemek Karnowski, out since December with a back injury, involved with the team has been a tender story line for this team — the trials and travails of which have been documented on HBO’s inside-the-locker-room documentary, “The March to Madness.”

Underdog cred: There’s still something painfully heartwarming about watching coach Mark Few try to do that handstand-whatever-it-is thing in the locker room after wins. #dothefew.

By Eddie Pells

AP Sports Writer

Follow AP National Sports Writer Eddie Pells on Twitter: https://twitter.com/epells

Follow AP National Sports Writer Eddie Pells on Twitter: https://twitter.com/epells

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