This stuff happens fast. Already, the NCAA Tournament is down to 64 teams. A quick look at teams with mid-level or lower seeds that have my interest as the second round is staged today and Friday:
• BYU: Three years after Utah State lost a six-point lead in the last four minutes against Marquette in an NCAA game, the Cougars will take their shot. BYU is unlikely to have the energy to make another comeback like Tuesday’s against Iona, so a strong start is critical for the Cougars.
• Saint Louis: Former Utah coach Rick Majerus is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003, when his Utes beat Oregon as a No. 9 seed. That’s where his Billikens are seeded this year, with an intriguing matchup against Memphis’ fast-paced approach under young coach Josh Pastner.
• Southern Mississippi: After leaving Utah State, Larry Eustachy made a big impact at Iowa State before his coaching career unraveled, partly because of alcoholism. He’s rebuilt his life and career in eight seasons at Southern Miss, finally getting the Golden Eagles into the NCAA Tournament.
• UNLV: Not all coaching vacancies offer equal opportunities. In contrast to Larry Krystkowiak, who inherited a thin roster at Utah, former BYU associate head coach Dave Rice stepped into a great situation at UNLV. The Rebels, who beat North Carolina in November, have been inconsistent, but still claimed one of the Mountain West’s three top-six seeds.
• Colorado State: The Rams have come a long way in coach Tim Miles’ five seasons. They went 0-16 in Mountain West play in 2007-08, but have gradually built toward this opportunity, having appeared in other postseason tournaments each of the last two years. If CSU upsets Murray State and BYU beats Marquette, the two longtime conference rivals will meet Saturday.
• Colorado: The Buffaloes, who won four games (starting with a hard-earned defeat of Utah) to claim the Pac-12 tournament, suddenly are the conference’s only NCAA hope after California crumbled in a first-round game. Colorado features Utah transfer Carlon Brown. In 2007, ex-Ute forward Justin Hawkins led New Mexico State into the NCAA Tournament as the MVP of a conference tournament. Brown matched that achievement last week, and he’s back in the NCAAs after playing in Utah’s loss to Arizona in 2009.
• South Dakota State: The school that at least temporarily ended Southern Utah coach Roger Reid’s career in the Summit League semifinals launched a Division I basketball program only in 2004-05, and now the Jackrabbbits are in the NCAA Tournament. South Dakota was the last state to get D-I athletics; even Alaska-Anchorage competes at that level in hockey and gymnastics.
• Harvard: The Jeremy Lin phenomenon is wearing off in New York, but this remains a breakthrough season for Harvard. Besides producing an NBA player, the Crimson have qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1946.
• Western Kentucky: Prior to BYU’s rally against Iona on the same floor in Dayton, Ohio, the Hilltoppers staged an even more improbable comeback, after trailing Mississippi Valley State by 16 points in the last five minutes. WKU also gets to be mentioned with Duke and Harvard among the eight teams in the field with perfect graduation rates in their basketball programs. The others: Belmont, BYU, Creighton, Davidson and Notre Dame.
• Purdue: Having recovered from two major knee injuries, Purdue forward Robbie Hummel is easy to cheer for in this tournament. Jazz forward Gordon Hayward played for Butler, but he grew up as a fan of Purdue, the school his parents and brother-in-law attended.
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