The names and places make a weird almanac. The Red Foxes of Marist meet flashy Georgia Tech, the Bobcats of Bozeman, Mont., meet the darlings of Gotham City in St. John's, the Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils of Itta Bena meet learned and No. 1 Duke.

Those are a few of the stranger first-round games as the NCAA tournament begins Thursday from the gaudy stretch of Long Beach to Tobacco Road to the Carrier Dome in wintry Syracuse. Big meets small, ranked meets unknown, high fashion meets hiking boots.

There are plenty of underdog schools in the 64-team field, and most of them will suffer ignominious endings, routs and even ridicule. But this also is a time when the schools enjoy their moment in what is an often hilarious spotlight.

Take Montana State, the only school in the tournament with a losing record. The Bobcats (14-16), champions of the Big Sky Conference, meet all-America Walter Berry and St. John's at Long Beach Arena Friday. The Redmen (30-4) are seeded first in the West Region; the Bobcats of Bozeman are seeded last and the subject of frequent inquiry: Who are you?

They have been bombarded by phone calls from newspapers, surrounded by camera crews, and even evoked interest from "Good Morning America." The Bobcats come from a school known for its engineering program and its trout fishing. This is their first appearance in the NCAAs since 1951; before that, you have to go back to the time when town founding father John Bozeman took his wagon through a Rocky Mountain pass on the heels of Lewis and Clark.

"I assure people the wagon trains are still coming around the mountain," said Coach Stu Starner, who goes on at length about the fishing in the Gallatin Stream.

The first thing to know about the Bobcats is that their leading scorer is Kral Ferch, who averages 16 points. They also have Shann Ferch, Kral's younger brother, first guard off the bench.

"Their father's name is Tom," Starner said. "He didn't want his kids to be just another Tom, Dick or Harry."

Giggle all you want, but give the Bobcats credit for perseverance. Despite inexperience and a thin roster, they have won their last five, including three games in the Big Sky tournament, and have four players averaging in double figures. They upset favored Montana with a barrage of outside shooting to earn the berth.

"Sure, there's a little awe," Starner said. "We're playing a recognizable university with big names. The records indicate who you played over the season. But they don't say anything about how you are playing now, and we're playing well. If we were worried about records, we'd have already thrown in the towel."

Mississippi Valley State is perhaps best known for its "devil may care" football program, which has turned out quarterback Willie Totten and wide receiver Jerry Rice. But this school of 2,200 students in Itta Bena now has something else to celebrate in the Delta Devils, champions of the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament.

The Delta Devils (20-10) meet the top-ranked Blue Devils (32-2) in Greensboro Thursday. But just because you are considered a dead-last 64th in the field and have to meet the nation's juggernaut does not mean you can't have a little fun, as Coach Lafayette Stribling has been demonstrating.

"If something happens, if 10 of their guys get sick, if we fool around and play over our heads, if their coach gets 15 technicals, then we might win," he said.

That might not totally be a joke. The Blue Devils suffered a scare in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, trailing last-place Wake Forest briefly. Though an upset seems laughable, a close game is not necessarily out of the question.

Marist is perhaps as much of a mystery team as any. The Red Foxes (19-11) won the ECAC-Metro Conference tournament to become a probable whipping boy for sixth-ranked Georgia Tech (25-6) in Baton Rouge Thursday.

Although the Yellow Jackets had a slightly disappointing regular season after being picked No. 1 in preseason, they remain one of the most glamorous teams in the tournament. There is considerably less glamor in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., home of Marist, and slim hope.

"I think we have a chance," Coach Matt Furjanic said. "I don't know how much of one, but a chance."

Cleveland State (27-3) at least has a metropolis going for it and may be a bona fide upset contender against 16th-ranked Indiana (21-7) in Syracuse. As leading scorer and honorable mention all-America Clinton Smith, a 6-6 forward averaging 16.3 points, said, "If we were 3-27, we wouldn't be getting any attention at all."

Some of the other intriguing mismatches include North Carolina AT&T (22-7) against second-ranked Kansas (31-3) in Dayton, and Brown (16-10), which won its first Ivy League title in 84 years, meeting ninth-ranked Syracuse (25-5) in the Carrier Dome.

Underdogs all, perhaps. But it's as Stribling, a man with some country sense, says: "Records are like pie crusts. They are meant to be broken."