SALT LAKE CITY — They wear a jackrabbit logo on their warm-ups. Home games are played in a 6,000-seat arena, 215 miles across jackrabbit country from any major city. Their NCAA Tournament history started only five years ago. Road games are in Fargo and Vermillion, Tulsa and Fort Wayne.
So naturally, South Dakota State University’s basketball team thinks it can win the national championship.
Thursday at Vivint Arena, the NCAA West Regional launches with all its fascinating stories. It wouldn’t be March Madness without them. Big dogs, underdogs and, occasionally, just dogs. Sixty-eight teams to begin, one to finish. Odds of an unknown winning it all: Impossible, according to history. No team lower than a No. 8 seed (each regional seeds 16 teams) has ever won the NCAA Tournament.
That doesn’t mean small-fries like South Dakota State or North Dakota — both in Salt Lake’s regional — should abandon hope. Navy once sank Louisiana State. Southern made for a rainy night in Georgia. Weber State shocked Michigan State and North Carolina. Lehigh unmasked Duke. And George Mason — the university, not your neighbor — beat Connecticut.
South Dakota State, a No. 16 seed, plays No. 1 seed Gonzaga in Thursday’s opening game.
“We’ve got a lot of respect for what Gonzaga has done this year, and they’ve earned that seed,” SDSU coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “At the same time, everybody is 0-0. Our guys are playing loose. Our guys are playing aggressive. We have every bit as much right being in this tournament as any of the other 67 teams do, and we’re going to come out (Thursday) and play with some passion and show that.”
If any team needs to be wary, it’s Gonzaga. Now an established basketball power, the Bulldogs have long been the little guy, punching above its weight class.
They should know how SDSU feels.
“We never look down on a team or look at them and say, ‘OK, it’s going to be easy for us.’ It’s not one of those things we’re looking at — we’re the big dog now,” said Gonzaga guard Jordan Mathews. “That chip is still the same.”
Here’s to dreamers, large and small, which is why everyone loves March Madness. Other Salt Lake games include Northwestern-Vanderbilt (ACT scores don't matter here), Saint Mary’s-Virginia Commonwealth and Arizona-North Dakota.
Not a boring storyline in the bunch.
Northwestern has never been to the tournament. But it’s bringing star power with it. Charlie Hall, a little-used forward, is the son of “Seinfeld” immortal Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Saint Mary’s — a team Rick Majerus longed to coach — is another small conference team that, nonetheless, rated the 17th-toughest schedule in the country. SDSU was in last place six weeks ago. North Dakota? Find Nova Scotia and take a hard left.
Incidentally, the Fighting Hawks have played more road and neutral games in Utah (22) than anywhere else since going Division I in 2008-09.
For its part, VCU knows drama. It won one game when a security guard picked up the basketball and a stampeding fan ran into the ref, resulting in a last-second technical. The Rams won in overtime.
So dreams of small teams live. In 1999, when Gonzaga was still a nobody, it had played only one previous NCAA Tournament game. Now its streak stands at 19 straight seasons.
“Hopefully someday South Dakota State can be that program," said SDSU swingman Reed Tellinghuisen.
Alongside aspirations of fame are the stories as true as a St. Bernard. For example, SDSU guard Michael Orris dedicating this season to his brother, who died earlier this year in a traffic accident.
“This was his dream for my life,” Orris said.
And the story of Nolan Cressler, who transferred from Cornell to Vanderbilt, saying he chose the Commodores because “I wanted that balance in my life. Because, you know, the ball stops bouncing someday.”
It does indeed.
But at least on this day — basketball’s best day — they’ll play like it’s never going to end.