Sampson thinks that ethics are a brand of sneakers. At Oklahoma, he and his staff committed 577 separate recruiting violations. As punishment, the NCAA restricted Sampson from telephoning or visiting recruits for one year. No big deal: He used e-mails and text messages to lure prize prepster Eric Gordon away from Illinois this fall.
It makes sense that Sampson must resort to extraordinary rendition in order to convince recruits to come to Bloomington. Indiana has dubbed itself "the Crossroads of America." That's just a nice way of saying that everyone who enters the state wants to leave.—Justin Peters
Wright State University, Horizon League, No. 14 in West Region
Two years ago, UT-Chattanooga entered the tournament with what I called "the most incoherent mess of logos in all of college sports." I spoke too soon: Meet the Wright State Raiders.
WSU's branding foibles began in the 1970s. With the Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders flourishing, Wright State brazenly Frankensteined together the former's color scheme and the latter's mascot to create … a green-and-gold Raider. Finding a mascot who matches that description has become an ongoing nightmare. After a brief dalliance with a one-eyed pirate—which probably looked a lot like this—Wright State ended its identity-thieving ways. Rowdy Raider, a fat Viking with red facial hair, was born.
Rowdy's victory was short-lived, as critics pilloried him for being too, well, gendered. Around 2000, Wright State hired a marketing firm to stop the madness. It's unclear whether the Wright State Eunuch was considered, but the firm eventually settled on a brown wolf named, yes, Raider. Seven years later, the wolf hasn't caught on and Rowdy—who now looks a bit like Frazzle the Muppet—hasn't disappeared. Adding to the confusion, at least one vendor has bred Rowdy and Raider to create an orange-yellow-green-brown armored dog.
With its mascot struggles, perhaps Wright State—classic tourney underdog—is trying to embody the Cinderella story. Cinderella, too, struggled through an identity crisis. She was a virtuous peasant girl who became a princess thanks to her fairy godmother. Wright State, on the other hand, hired consultants to turn a pirate-slash-seaman into a gender-neutral dog. That's an entirely different beast.—Chris Park
New Mexico State University, Western Athletic Conference, No. 13 in East Region
There are no villains in this year's bracket. Forget about Duke. The Blue Devils are evil, but they're about as intimidating a villain as James Spader in a John Hughes movie. I'm talking about real villains—a squad full of avaricious cheaters like the untouchable Tarkanian-administration UNLV Runnin' Rebels. Sadly, the best this year's bracket has to offer is New Mexico State, a team of off-brand thugs that's more a parody of villainy than a genuine force for evil.
Just two years removed from a 6-24 record, the Aggies won the WAC to claim a tournament bid. Reggie Theus—the rare coach whose résumé contains a Saturday morning TV acting gig—pulled off this turnaround by essentially firing the players he inherited and giving their scholarships to vagabond collegians and junior-college players. Among NMSU's squadron of transfers are point guard Elijah Ingram—who had been "permanently suspended" by St. John's for his involvement in a spectacularly dunderheaded sex scandal—and Tyrone Nelson, an All-WAC performer who served a suspension earlier this season for assaulting a pizza delivery man. Sure, these up-tempo, aggro Aggies are bad dudes. But real villains get killed off in the third act, not in the first round.—David Roth
University of Florida, Southeastern Conference, No. 1 in Midwest Region
There is nothing more irksome to me than Florida's finger-wagging, fist-pumping, chest-thumping, dress-wearing, pom-pom-swiping center Joakim Noah. He bugged me so much last season—a major accomplishment in a tournament that featured both Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick—that I had to go against my Big Ten and Midwestern upbringing and root for UCLA in the final. But my dislike of Noah is petty, a mere pom-pom flutter in the face, compared with the deeper hatred for the Gators that's been building since January. It's a hatred born of fear.
On Jan. 8, the Gators trashed my beloved Ohio State Buckeyes in the BCS title game. Ever since, I've dreaded the thought that they could meet for a rematch in the Final Four. Now it seems inevitable. During football season, the Buckeyes cruised to the Big Ten title, while Florida looked unimpressive late in the regular season before beating Arkansas for the SEC championship. During basketball season, the Buckeyes cruised to the Big Ten title, while Florida looked unimpressive late in the regular season before beating Arkansas for the SEC championship.
All I ask is that if the Buckeyes do make it to the final, and they do face Florida, they don't take the opening tip-off for a fast-break slam dunk. If they do, I'm shutting off the TV.—Rachael Larimore
University of Pennsylvania, Ivy League, No. 14 in South Region Remember when the University of Pennsylvania had a guy named "Michael Jordan"? That was pretty funny. Penn "competing" for the NCAA championship? Not so funny. Niagara and Florida A&M—the tourney's other no-chance schools—were shunted to a play-in game that nobody watched. Meanwhile, the Quakers are ambling into yet another lower-lower-middle-seeded appearance.
For Penn, a tournament bid is just one more unexamined entitlement in life, like a job at Accenture or Smith Barney: If you don't screw up, they'll give you one. Yes, Penn won the Ivy League. The Ivy League is a sham. Each year, at least six of the eight Ivy teams have no chance or intention of competing for the conference title. With the collapse of Princeton's basketball program, the number is up to seven.
Penn's Ivy mark this year was 13-1. Against actual basketball teams, the Quakers went 9-7—losing to Fordham by 17, Syracuse by 18, and North Carolina by 38. On Philadelphia's Big Five circuit, the closest thing to regular competition the Quakers see, they went 2-2 with double-digit losses to Villanova and St. Joseph's.
As it is, Penn's automatic Ivy bid is indefensible. They should be forced to defend it. Next year, shove the overprivileged Quakers into the play-in game against a snubbed and angry lower-conference squad, with a slot in the real tournament on the line. Set it up like that, and people might even watch.—Tom Scocca
University of Notre Dame, Big East Conference, No. 6 in Midwest Region
I have a lot of reasons to hate Notre Dame. The smarmy, self-entitled fans; the lousy, nationally televised Saturday-afternoon football matchups; the fact I grew up in a Purdue household. But nothing stokes my Domer enmity more than Mike Brey's mock turtleneck. There are two typical schools of sideline fashion, both of which make a certain kind of sense. One is the sweater look, Bob Knight's school-logo-studded (and, of late, auto-parts-ad-studded) crewneck being the quintessence. When you play for a coach in a sweater, you're playing for Dad. And you don't want to disappoint Dad. (He might kick you, for one thing.) The second option is the now-dominant coat-and-tie get-up. This look can be further subdivided: There's the continental (Rick Pitino, John Calipari), the color-coordinated (Roy Williams, Bruce Pearl), and the Willy Loman (Jim Calhoun, Gary Williams). To varying degrees, these fashion statements exude seriousness to the suit wearer's players: You're part of a fine-tuned machine, and you better play like it. All of this makes me wonder: What in the hell are the Notre Dame players thinking when they look at Mike Brey? The sportcoat-plus-turtleneck thing—coupled with Brey's Pat Riley-esque balding comb-back—makes the Fighting Irish head coach look like a pathetic middle-aged guy who's desperate to seem cool. Hey, Mike, you know what's in this season? Hoodies!— Mike DeBonis
Creighton University, Missouri Valley Conference, No. 10 in South Region
Last year, George Mason shocked and charmed the sports world by crashing the Final Four. The Patriots' run in last year's tourney was no miracle; it was a sign of the increased parity between college basketball's elites and a heretofore unrecognized caste of high-ish majors. Who belongs in this caste? Gonzaga, Nevada, and the upper ranks of the CAA (George Mason's league) and the MVC (the seventh-best conference in the land according to the RPI rankings).
Creighton is the elitest of the Missouri Valley's elites. The Bluejays are in their seventh NCAA Tournament in nine years, a stretch in which they've taken down Florida and Louisville. This year, they've got a tough but nimble center named Anthony Tolliver and a sweet-shooting, mercifully non-Korverian guard in Nate Funk. Most people who've seen them play—their conference final was on CBS!—would find it completely unsurprising if they made it to the Sweet 16. But that hasn't prevented SI.com or Foxsports.com or the Newark Star-Ledger from proclaiming, all season long, that the Bluejays are Cinderellas-in-waiting.