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Who says there are no rooting interests for Southland fans?

For Southern California college basketball fans, this NCAA tournament probably feels a little like the Kentucky Derby might if you hadn’t been paying close attention to horse racing.

The teams aren’t necessarily those we know best, but it’s considerably more fun to watch when you pick a team or two and take a rooting interest.

The major local teams were pretty much out of it a long time ago. UCLA suffered early-season losses to Cal State Fullerton, Portland and Long Beach State. USC was eliminated when it slapped itself with a one-year postseason ban because of recruiting violations.

So now that Selection Sunday has come and gone, who is there to root for? This is a year to be creative, to let go of traditional loyalties. So let’s try this: A Sweet 16 — plus three — collection of underdogs and dark horses and locals who had to leave home to make good:

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For starters, consider teams that lost to USC and UCLA this season — Tennessee, St. Mary’s, Nevada Las Vegas, New Mexico State, Washington and California.

Have trouble cheering on a rival Pacific 10 Conference school? Project a little. Notice that Cal is probably a first-round win over Louisville away from meeting Duke in the second round.

It’s hard to know which team to dislike more, but just imagine Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale having to explain the Blue Devils’ getting eliminated on the first weekend by — the horror! — a Pac-10 team. Suddenly it almost seems worth rooting for the Golden Bears.

Or how about a Jesuit quartet for the disappointed Loyola Marymount contingent? There’s Gonzaga, Xavier, Marquette and Georgetown.

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Georgetown and Marquette have national titles in their past. Maybe Gonzaga or Xavier has one in its future. After 15 more victories this year than last, Lions fans can dream, too, can’t they?

We could also consider branching out and claiming an almost-local team as our own.

San Diego State anyone? It’s hard to imagine Steve Fisher coaching in a tournament when Ben Howland isn’t, just as it’s hard to imagine the team from Howland’s hometown of Santa Barbara in the tournament when Howland isn’t.

But sure enough, San Diego State and UC Santa Barbara are in, and both have rosters full of former Southland high school stars.

San Diego State has Kawhi Leonard, a freshman from Riverside King High, who leads the Aztecs with averages of 12.8 points and 9.9 rebounds, plus junior point guard D.J. Gay, from Sun Valley Poly, who averages 10.3 points.

Santa Barbara is led by Big West player of the year Orlando Johnson, a Loyola Marymount transfer who averages 17.9 points and 5.4 rebounds. Jaime Serna, a freshman forward from Santa Margarita High, and James Powell, a senior guard from Glendora High, are also starters.

And speaking of locally produced players, we can always follow them without rooting for their teams.

Cornell has a couple. Jon Jaques, a senior from Harvard-Westlake High, is averaging 6.9 points a game. Peter McMillan, a freshman forward from Brentwood, is also on the roster.

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Lehigh has Michael Ojo, a 6-foot-5 junior guard from Santa Monica Crossroads High, the school that produced Baron Davis, who went on to do pretty well for himself. Ojo averages seven points. Five years ago, Patriot League champion Bucknell upset Kansas in the first round. Could Patriot League champion Lehigh do it again?

Florida State out-recruited UCLA for freshman swingman Michael Snaer out of Moreno Valley High. Some sneered at Snaer for abandoning the always-part-of-March-Madness Bruins for a football school. Snaer is averaging 8.8 points a game for the Seminoles so it’s worked out fine, that cross-country trip.

Texas El Paso has junior guard Julyan Stone, from Goleta Dos Pueblos High, who averages 6.1 points, 5.4 assists and 5.1 rebounds, and junior guard Isaac Gordon, from L.A. Price High. Gordon, who started his college career at Mercer, is the son of a former UCLA football player.

Georgia Tech offers D’Andre Bell, a senior guard who averages 6.3 points. He’s from Pacific Palisades High.

When Brigham Young gets moving it’s often because of point guard Lamont Morgan from Pomona Diamond Ranch High and Saddleback College.

Minnesota has Justin Cobbs, a freshman from Torrance Bishop Montgomery High who played in all 33 games this year for Coach Tubby Smith.

So there it is. It wasn’t so hard to find teams to get behind. Bruins and Trojans, we’ll hardly miss you.

But next year? Let’s not try this again.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com


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