Scott Fowler

Raise your glass to NCAA tournament’s lovable underdogs

Wilt Chamberlain, the legendary NBA 7-foot-1 center, liked to say “Nobody roots for Goliath.” Nowhere is that truer than during the first few days of the NCAA tournament.

You root for your team, and other than that you root for upsets. We all want to see David, with his five smooth stones, facing down Goliath.

You want a No. 16 seed to take down a No. 1 for the first time ever on Thursday or Friday, don’t you? You want Buster Douglas whipping Mike Tyson. You want Appalachian State’s football team beating Michigan on the road. You want N.C. State’s Lorenzo Charles dunking to beat Houston.

While the second weekend generally produces more good games as 16 teams get whittled to four, it is the tournament’s first big weekend that best captures the popular imagination.

You want Florida Gulf Coast University. You want George Mason. You want Davidson.

“It’s a special year for us,” said Stephen Curry, who keyed Davidson’s run to the Elite Eight in 2008. “It reminds me a lot of my freshman year at Davidson, when we were picked way low in the Southern Conference standings in the preseason and ended up winning the conference. They are doing the same sort of thing this year – picked 12th in the A-10 in their first year and then winning the regular-season championship.”

Davidson is one of a half-dozen teams from the Carolinas playing in the 68-team NCAA tournament, and those six squads are evenly split up for your maximum viewing pleasure. N.C. State, North Carolina and Wofford play Thursday. Davidson, Duke and Coastal Carolina play Friday. The city of Charlotte gets a taste of the action too with eight teams (headlined by Duke and Virginia) starting NCAA play on Friday at Time Warner Cable Arena.

The actual NCAA bracket has its own magic, of course. I know many people who do all their predictions online now. The scoring is simpler. There is no illegible handwriting.

For me, though, I still print out a bracket every year and hold it. Much like the way I still like to get newspaper ink on my fingers while turning actual pages, I like to fill out a paper bracket.

It is also far easier to crumple up a paper bracket than to crumple up a laptop.

My problem is I like to pick too many upsets. I want every 12 seed to beat a 5 seed, not just one. I want the 14 over the 3 and the 15 over the 2. I want double-digit seeds scattered across the Sweet 16 like cherry blossom petals.

“Oh, I understand,” said Wofford coach Mike Young, who has gotten his Terriers to the NCAA four times in the past six years. “I cheer for every underdog. I pull for Tommy Amaker and Harvard. I want Stephen F. Austin to win. You betcha – because those guys all are following the same path that we followed.”

Most of those long shots don’t win, which is why they are underdogs in the first place.

Says ESPN announcer Jay Bilas: “Even though there is the occasional upset – and it really is a little more occasional than people like to believe – there are a lot of very average teams in the first weekend that do not provide a fair fight. You get to the second weekend? You can play. There are a lot of teams that can’t play in the first weekend.”

True enough.

But it is so much fun finding the few who really can. The big dogs own much of the second weekend and frequently the Final Four. Kentucky is going to own it all this year, I imagine.

The first four days, though – those belong to the underdogs. Raise your glass to them. And make your toast quick, because most of them won’t be here for long.

A couple of them will stick around, though. And that’s why they – and we – all get to dream a little this time every year.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

Four underdogs to root for

Hampton (16 seed): The Pirates are the ultimate underdog versus unbeaten and tournament favorite Kentucky. Coach Edward Joyner Jr. joked this week that he’ll need divine intervention: “Jesus on speed dial.”

UC Irvine (13 seed): He’s not Goliath, but 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye will help the Anteaters take on Louisville.

Coastal Carolina (16 seed): Former Clemson coach Cliff Ellis leads the Chanticleers against Big Ten power Wisconsin.

Lafayette (16 seed): Only 9-9 and fourth in the Patriot League, the Leopards are coached by Fran O’Hanlon, who once played for opponent Villanova.

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