For the next three weeks the biggest story in sports will be the NCAA basketball tournament. (That's assuming, of course, Mike Piazza doesn't get his hands around Guillermo Mota's scrawny neck, or the wiseguys don't get their hands around Jaromir Jagr's legs and say, "Hey, hockey boy, make a wish.") Selection Sunday and Bracket Monday are holy days on the sports calendar. People spend more time preparing their tournament brackets than they do in filling out their taxes. (Then again if we've learned anything from Jagr, it's that paying taxes can wait. Heck, Jagr paid off the vig way before he paid off Uncle Sam. But nobody's gonna give you an extension on the 8-9 game in the Midwest sub-regional, pal.)
By Sunday evening everybody will be concentrating on the power conferences, and how many fifth-place and sixth-place teams they squeezed into the field. By Monday morning nobody's going to give a second thought to the small schools that got in when nobody was looking; the Wagners, the UNC Ashevilles, the Troy States, the Wisconsin-Milwaukees, the Sam Houston States and the IUPUIs. They'll just be written out of brackets like first-round roadkill. So this is a salute to them. (A salute of a different sort goes to that Kansas State player who thought that because he intercepted an inbounds pass with only three seconds left and a two-point lead over Colorado, it was okay to strut around the court holding the ball like it was a trombone. Sadly, this is called "traveling." And when the official gave Colorado the ball with 1.8 seconds to go, and their guy banked in a three at the buzzer to win, well, that's called, "Get me into the Witness Protection Program." This singular act of stupidity thrilled my friend Tracee, who went to Kansas and glories in the misfortune of K-State. But I digress.)
How can you not root for IUPUI? IUPUI stands for Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, which is the longest and dopiest name of any college in the tournament. I mean, really, IUPUI sounds like it was named by Vanna White. IUPUI got in the tournament by beating perennial unpronounceable Mid-Continent entry Valparaiso. (And as I always say: Better to be Mid-Continent than Incontinent.)
This is the first time in the NCAA tournament for IUPUI, which entered Division I five years ago, after the NCAA realized it was a school, not an eye chart. The thing I like most about IUPUI is that its students refer to it as "Oooh-wee, pooh-wee," transposing its first two letters. That sounds so cool: Oooh-wee, pooh-wee. I want to sing, "Oooh-wee, pooh-wee, baby; oooh-wee, pooh-wee, baby, won't you let me take you on a sea cruise?" You remember that song, right? "Sea Cruise" by Frankie Ford from, I think, 1961.
Excuse me, Tony, are you nuts? Nobody remembers that song. It's from 40 years ago! You are so old. Why don't you say something like, "Hey, let's hear it for World War I! Come on, raise your hand if you remember World War I. Was Armistice Day great, or what?"
How can you not root for Wagner? Wagner's on Staten Island, the world's largest outdoor garbage dump. I don't want to say Staten Island smells bad, but it's the only place I've ever been where the rest stop machines sell Coke, Pepsi and Fabreze.
Wagner is the feel-good story of the tournament, because its coach is Dereck Whittenburg. It's 20 years since Whittenburg launched the last-second shot that Lorenzo Charles caught and dropped in the basket to give North Carolina State its miraculous victory over Houston for the national title. Even now if you close your eyes you can still see Jim Valvano running around the court looking for someone to hug. "It's 20 years since we won, and 10 years since Jimmy passed," Whittenburg said. "It's almost like it's fate that we're here."
Few appreciate the difference between major and minor like Whittenburg. "Here I have to drive the bus and fold up the uniforms," Whittenburg said cheerfully. Wagner made the NCAA by winning the Northeast Conference, and Whittenburg scheduled the likes of Maryland and Connecticut in anticipation of this moment. "After the conference championship game I told our kids that the first part of our dream is finished," Whittenburg said. "The second part of the dream we have to begin -- to go to the Sweet 16. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy. But it's easy for me to believe because I won a national championship."
How can you not root for Troy State? (Troy State? Imagine that. I must have been out of the country when Troy became a state. If Troy's No. 51, I assume Athens will be No. 52. Actually, it turns out Sam Houston State is No. 52.) Just five years ago Troy State was rated the worst of all 309 teams in Division I. And here they are in the NCAAs for the first time, having won the Atlantic Sun tournament. I also missed the formation of the Atlantic Sun; probably because I was visiting the Pacific Rim. The Atlantic Sun has schools that don't sound like schools: Gardner-Webb, Belmont, Mercer, Stetson. They sound like a law firm.
How can you not root for Sam Houston State? Better them than Allan Houston State, right? Or Anjelica Huston State? Sam Houston State won the Southland Conference, which I believe is a wholly owned subsidiary of 7-Eleven. It's the first time in for Sam Houston, so Spicy Big Bites and Slurpees for everyone if the Bearkats get to the second round.
How can you not root for Wisconsin-Milwaukee? Wisconsin-Milwaukee is making its first appearance in the NCAA tournament in the school's 107-year history. (Come on, if it's 107 years old surely someone there has heard of Frankie Ford's "Sea Cruise.") And Woo-eee Moo-eee, as we like to call it, has players on its roster named Kalombo Kadima and Kyle Knipple! Speaking of cool names, check out East Tennessee State's Brad "Brass" Nuckles, San Diego's Abdou "I'm Just About To Go In" Sane, Creighton's Nathan "Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da" Funk and UNC Wilmington's Brett "Bob Ryan's On the Tube and He Swears It's Gonna Be A" Blizzard. Oh, Tony, stop it, you're killing me.
And how can you not root for UNC Asheville? The Bulldogs went 1-14 on the road this season. Their only chance to win their first-round game is if they play it in their on-campus dining hall. Talk about getting into the dance by the skin of your teeth: UNC Asheville is in the NCAAs for the first time, and it's in with a 14-16 record! To win the Big South tournament the Bulldogs had to go into overtime in two of their three games. How do you think it makes them feel in Chapel Hill that UNC Asheville and UNC Wilmington are in, and UNC isn't? How do you think El Deano likes that in his morning coffee?
It's time for me to leave you now, so let me leave you with the immortal words of Dan Snyder: "Isn't there anybody else on the Jets we can sign?"