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Monson: NCAA Tournament field at Vivint Arena offers a crap du jour

Published March 15, 2017 4:22 pm

NCAA Tournament • Zags have SLC connections, but are also again a No. 1 seed; tournament fans love rooting for the underdog
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What's my motivation? What's my reason to root?

Without a whole lot of passion for or connection to any particular school playing here — seeing that none of the Utah teams made the field — college basketball fans in Salt Lake who are fortunate enough to score tickets to the NCAA Tournament first- and second-round sessions at Vivint Arena may not know exactly who to get behind on Thursday and Saturday.

Their loyalties are up for grabs as much as the opening tip. And being fickle about it is the fans' license.

This came as an unpleasant surprise to Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who was angered four years ago here after the locals — and probably not a few of the visitors — climbed aboard Southern University's cause when the underdogs played the Zags tough. The fans in the building — whoever they were — cheered hard for the Jags, not the Zags.

Few later said: "That building flipped on us just like that."

When Tribune columnist Kurt Kragthorpe recently asked Few if he would welcome another trip in the tournament through Salt Lake City, he said: "If they want to cheer for us, yeah. If they do that crap that they did last time, then no."

Do whatever crap you want, folks.

There are all sorts of choices, a crap du jour.

Here, then, are a few Scooby-snack crappy reasons to cheer for each of the eight teams, useable any which way, at any time, depending on how the action unfolds on the floor.

If ever there was a lovable sort of underdog, it would be 16th-seeded South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits, going up against mighty Gonzaga, are a cute little team from some league you've never heard of, a league in which they finished 8-8 during the regular season, going 3-12 on the road, before winning the conference tournament. As their name suggests, the J-rabbits play no defense, attempting to outscore every opponent. They were blown out by teams like Cal, by 29 points, and Wichita State, by 22. South Dakota State did manage to thump Western Illinois by a whopping 33 points. A notable Jackrabbit is sophomore Mike Daum, a 6-foot-9 forward who gets 25.3 points a game and hauls in 8.2 rebounds and hits 42 percent of his 3-pointers. We'll learn more about him in the days ahead. He's worth watching.

Gonzaga won all of its games this season, except for one, against BYU. You got to admit, it would be funny if the Bulldogs hammered through the tournament to their first national title, all while the Cougars were the single team to soil their record. Gonzaga has quite the link to Salt Lake, including shared son John Stockton. Many observers believe this is the best Bulldogs team ever.

Northwestern is an irresistible story, on account of this being the school's first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament, and therefore, everybody on the planet is cheering on the Wildcats, as though they were the Cubs, certainly a thousand sportswriters and broadcasters, all of whom attended the school. Speaking of notable alums, Northwestern has its fair share, including Stephen Colbert, Charlton Heston, Ann Margret, Seth Meyers, Cindy Crawford, George McGovern, Hugh Hefner, Pharrell Williams, Warren Beatty. And the Oscar goes to …

Vanderbilt lost 15 games this season. But there was a good reason for that. According to RPI, the Commodores had a more challenging strength of schedule than any other team. Still, Vandy gained impressive enough victories to get invited as a No. 9 seed. Moreover, it has smart players — dare we say, student-athletes? — since the school's academic requirements are more rigorous than the team's SOS.

Saint Mary's is no stranger to these parts, playing as it does in the WCC. But its squad might as well be the Australian National team. Seven of its guys come from the land Down Under, including star center Jock Landale. He's not the only Jock on the team — as Jock Perry, another Aussie, is also a Gael big. Guaranteed, Saint Mary's is the only team in the entire field with two Tasmanian players. This team, Saint Mary's best ever, plays hard at both ends and coach Randy Bennett calls them unselfish: "They care more about the team than any personal recognition."

VCU is a long way from its commonwealth, the campus being 2,140 miles in distance from SLC. How many of the Rowdy Rams will show up here is unknown, but the team will need a boost. Although VCU's made the tournament seven consecutive years, it has been a while — 2011 — since the Rams became the only tournament team to make it from the First Four to the Final Four. VCU's all-time leading scorer, Eric Maynor, was drafted by the Jazz in 2009, although it wasn't long before he was traded.

Arizona has the best player in the field here, or, at least the best projected pro — freshman Lauri Markkanen — and maybe the best duo of players in Markkanen and Allonzo Trier. They were terrific in the Pac-12 tournament, as the Wildcats beat UCLA and Oregon. Markkanen made 52 percent of his shots and 47 percent from deep. If you like teams that come on strong when it matters most, this is your kind of outfit. Before the league tournament, Arizona had been 1-4 against top-25 teams. Now, Charles Barkley is picking the Cats to win the whole darn thing.

As champs of the Big Sky, the North Dakota Fighting Hawks are automatically likable … unless, of course, they aren't. Hard to tell whether Weber State fans are capable emotionally of supporting North Dakota after the way the Wildcats fell apart at the end of the title game in Reno, Nev. Like Northwestern, the Hawks are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance and that's likely why nobody south of Ogden knows a thing about them. They spent a good part of their history playing Division II ball, competing in something called the North Central Conference, from where they made three Division II Final Fours. This team likes to get up and down the floor and fire away. But if it got beat by opponents like North Florida, Wright State and Northern Arizona, going up against bully Arizona will be rough. If the Hawks hang, though, all the more reason to fly with them.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM. Twitter: @GordonMonson.






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