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In college hoops, little guys dream big

The beauty of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament is in its invitation list.

Sixty-four teams were chosen to participate, ostensibly the best in the land. That does nothing to justify Florida A&M, with a regular season record of 12-18 - this is not a typographical error - showing up to strut its inadequate stuff in the first round. This is a team that lost its first 10 games this season. Naturally, the Rattlers were thumped in the opening round by 41 points by mighty Duke.

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A&M got an invite because it miraculously won the Mid-Eastern tournament, thus getting one of the 30 automatic berths, just like Connecticut did because it won the Big East tournament.

Yet, A&M's role was invaluable. It gave all of us hope that no matter how much we lose, maybe by fluke we still somehow can be perceived as winners.

In first-round games here at one of the regional sites, fans had the University of Alabama-Birmingham and Siena inflicted on them. If these two represent the elite of college hoops, then the definition of elite needs substantive revision.

Clearly, the case can be made that 64 teams is too many. Wouldn't it be better to start with 32 teams and emphasize quality rather than quantity?

Of course not. The fun of this lose-and-you're-excused tournament is teams get to come that don't belong and others that should be asked instead are standing outside with their out-of-joint noses pressed to the windows.

That is ideal. Like life, it's not fair. So?

Indeed, even though Siena resembled a top basketball team only in the way it was dressed, how great that it got to travel to Denver from, well, wherever Siena is, and pretend it belonged.

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A handful of teams never before had been to the tournament - Winthrop, Kent, Arkansas State, Samford. And Florida A&M. Each team had no hope, but every player had dreams. Dreaming is good. It's a buffer against hard-core reality that we all get way too much of.

Also trying to act as if they belonged were teams like Rhode Island (20-12), Mississippi (19-12), and Mt. St. Mary's (15-14). Regardless of the average records, some day these players will be yakking about how they played on one of the best teams in the country in 1999 in the NCAA Tournament. Few will know the fib.

Plus, not to include the little and marginal guys would deprive us of one of the most delicious aspects of sport: upsets. Nothing is more fun, unless you are the upsetee.

Last year, Utah played for the NCAA title, losing to Kentucky. The Utes looked to have decent aim on a similar result this year. Then along came Miami of Ohio, a team from a Norman Rockwell-like campus in Oxford but where nationally successful basketball is not in the picture. Utah lost.

Weber State in Ogden, Utah, is best known for its involvement with aerospace satellites and for having among its alumni the late founder of the Marriott Corp., J. Willard Marriott. Its first-round opponent, big and proud but Dean Smithless-North Carolina, swaggered onto the court in Seattle and was stun-gunned by Weber.

Best of all, there's Gonzaga, a small (4,500 students) Jesuit university in Spokane, Wash., that sounds like a sci-fi creature. It's known for two things: Bing Crosby went there, which is why the school has the Crosby Library, and so did NBA star John Stockton, which is why the school clings to hoops hopes.

First the Zags took out Minnesota. Admittedly, the losers were awash in academic cheating accusations that benched its stars. No excuse. Minnesota at its worst should throttle Gonzaga at its best. Nope. Gonzaga won by 12. And in the next game, proud and highly regarded Stanford got Zagged, too, by eight.

Southwest Missouri State, an ordinary 22-10 team, up and ripped Wisconsin and Tennessee to earn the privilege of playing the land's No. 1-ranked team, Duke, today. By tomorrow morning, Southwest Missouri will wake up dead and go back to being known best for its State Fruit Experiment Station. But, for these fleeting moments in the bright lights, life was golden.

Nor, almost certainly, will any of the surprise teams be left by the end of this weekend's action. We wish one would. But we understand.

Still, by their grit and by their dreams, they crawled into our hearts because they proved that superior will can overcome superior talent - occasionally.

Maybe, just maybe, some year we will have an NCAA final pitting Winthrop and Duke. And Winthrop will win.

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