Column: NCAA tournament: ACC has three No. 1 seeds, but don’t overlook the underdogs

Buffalo's CJ Massinburg, right, and Nick Perkins, left, join teammates in celebrating their Mid-American Conference championship game victory.
(Tony Dejak / Associated Press)

The call came Friday afternoon from Cleveland, where Eric Gross grabbed a minute before Buffalo’s conference tournament semifinal to perform a key part of his job as the school’s deputy director of athletics.

The Bulls — Arizona fans know them as the squad that stopped eventual No. 1 draft pick Deandre Ayton last year in the NCAA tournament’s first round — are back as potential March darlings. It is sell, sell, sell mode for Gross and everyone in charge at Buffalo, which rode its No. 13 seed to the brink of the Sweet 16 last year before falling to powerhouse Kentucky.

The seeds get a lot of attention on Selection Sunday, but Gross rattled off the numbers that matter most for all those future Cinderellas: a 90% spike in ticket revenue and 33% increase in donations since taking down Arizona.

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March is a month for dreamers. Forgive Gross if he can’t help but see the Bulls continuing this trend and someday becoming part of a major conference.

“We are the public flagship institution for the state of New York,” he said, “and I think our alumni really take pride in that. We want to build an athletic program that’s commensurate with the other big-time public flagship institutions.”

You hear this, and part of you wants to come along for the ride with the sixth-seeded Bulls, possibly all the way to Anaheim for second-weekend festivities in the West Regional. But, at the same time, another part of you wants to tap the brakes a little on that Buffalo-to-the-ACC dream.

Can’t our underdogs remain cute and cuddly? Can’t we imagine them going to study hall and doing obscene amounts of community service between their annual March appearances, when they sweep America off its feet during the best spectacle in sports? Do they have to live by the same (lack of) value system that has the sport’s big boys under federal investigation and consistently sweating out NCAA infractions investigations?

Maybe Buffalo and the rest of the mid-majors who are hungry to parlay a couple of hot shooting nights into institutional growth should consider just trying to stay safe. Going big isn’t always better.

That should be the lesson in the Gonzaga Bulldogs’ remarkable run of 21 consecutive NCAA tournaments, which extended Sunday with the program’s third No. 1 seed in seven years. The Bulldogs have limited major-conference prospects because they haven’t staged a football game since 1941. That surely helped them manage their collective ego. Gonzaga has invested heavily in keeping a loyal head coach, Mark Few, happy enough to never mistake the keys to a Ferrari for a smoother drive.

Gonzaga didn’t become the most consistent team on the West Coast by trying to be Duke. Sure, Gonzaga beat the Blue Devils in the Maui Invitational in November and is one of only four teams to best Mike Krzyzewski’s phenomenal group of freshmen.

The phenom, of course, is Zion Williamson, the most dominant player in recent memory and a near lock to be the top pick in the draft. He led Duke to the Atlantic Coast Conference conference title and the No. 1 overall seed. The ACC drew three No. 1 seeds, including Virginia in the South and North Carolina in the Midwest.

Zion Williamson celebrates after Duke defeated Florida State for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title Saturday.
(Nell Redmond / Associated Press)

There will be enough gushing about Williamson, debates about the one-and-done rule, and dissection of which traditional powers have the right stuff to take him down, as the tournament moves forward.

This week, particularly Thursday and Friday, is about opportunity. It is sitting there on every line in the bracket with a name like Buffalo, UC Irvine or Prairie View A&M. In the last six tournaments, a team seeded seventh or lower has made the Final Four, so this is a good time to be an underdog.

Buffalo, 31-3, is a No. 6 seed, a major sign of respect. Forget the name and conference affiliation. These guys can play.

This is how the rise begins. Gonzaga did not receive a six seed until its fifth trip to the tournament in 2002. Once the Bulldogs got a two seed in 2004, they were here to stay. Then everything changed, even though they did not try to be anything other than a mid-major team. Routinely, fans all over the country lambaste them for playing in an easy conference and come tournament time root against Gonzaga. To these observers, a loss in the NCAA tournament theoretically proves that playing in a big-name conference holds some importance.

Maybe this will be the year Gonzaga shows once and for all that isn’t true — especially once you are in this tournament.

Beyond Gonzaga, doing this year after year from outside the elite leagues is hard to pull off. Butler, a two-time runner-up in 2010-11, used those runs to join the Big East and did not receive an invite this year. Virginia Commonwealth jumped from the Colonial Athletic Association to the Atlantic 10 a few months after its 2012 run to the Final Four and has made eight of the last nine NCAA fields. The Rams are seeded eighth in the East Regional.

But usually, Cinderellas have their moment and spend years pushing in the shadows for another one. Former darlings Georgia State, Murray State, Vermont, Bradley and North Dakota State are all back in position this year and have the understanding of just how fleeting the fame can be.

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Last year’s party crashers won’t be back for another shot. Maryland Baltimore County, which became the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 with its win over Virginia, fell in the America East final.

Who could forget 99-year-old nun Jean Dolores Schmidt, who became “Sister Jean” to the nation as Loyola Chicago completed a stirring run to the Final Four? The Ramblers exited the Missouri Valley tournament in the semifinals.

“Everyone was just devastated for them,” said Erin Moriarty, Loyola Chicago director of undergraduate admission. “You could feel it on campus when they came back.”

Moriarty, reached last week as she got over her hoops heartbreak, said last year’s trip to the Final Four led to a record freshman class of more than 2,700.

“It was a big jump that we were not expecting,” Moriarty said. “We weren’t trying to grow. We want to stay in the range that we’re at.”

That comes as a relief. Beware of looking too far ahead, Buffalo, and let the magic of this tournament do the work.

Twitter: @BradyMcCollough