Little guy storylines are intriguing, but these underdogs can all play

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SYRACUSE -- Kentucky freshman DeMarcus Cousins sat in one corner of the Wildcats' temporary locker room at the Carrier Dome, host of the NCAA East Regional. He was surrounded by a small cluster of reporters, all appropriately fascinated by the matchup between Kentucky and Cornell on Thursday night in the Sweet 16. Bait was being dangled in front of Cousins's face. How do you feel about constantly hearing that Cornell players are the smart kids? At first Cousins resisted.

"I'm not getting into all that,'' he said. "I'm not getting into that 'smart kids' stuff. I'm not gettin' into that.''

But eventually the force of inquisition wore him down, as it almost always does when the witness is young and the topic is emotional, and Cousins delivered the day's killer quote. "I think it's stupid,'' he said. "I'm not going to let it get to me. We're here to play basketball. It's not a spelling bee.'' It was a sharp and funny quote and, actually, deadly accurate. More on that in a minute.

This is the time of year when contrast sells. The contrast between a high seed and a low seed. The contrast between genuine student-athletes and those who are simply called "student-athletes'' in NCAA-organized press conferences, but really are pretty much just subsidized basketball players with a college's name on their uniform. Any other contrast you can imagine, and there are others (use your imagination). Contrast makes for storylines.

This particular NCAA tournament is especially rich in contrast. Four teams seeded No. 9 or higher -- the bottom half of a 16-team region -- have reached the Sweet 16 games that play out Thursday and Friday night at four sites. (You know the four already: No. 11 Washington plays No. 2 West Virginia in the JV game Thursday night in Syracuse, followed by No. 12 Cornell against No. 1 Kentucky; and on Friday night No. 10 St. Mary's takes on No. 3 Baylor, followed by No. 9 Northern Iowa, which upset top overall seed Kansas, playing No. 5 Michigan State.) Beyond those four games, two other so-called "mid-major'' programs are also in the Sweet 16: Butler plays Syracuse Thursday night, followed by Xavier against Kansas State.

Clearly the game richest in contrast is Cornell-Kentucky. You can read my colleague Andy Staples' piece here for a more detailed look at this differences between the two programs, but up front: Cornell is comprised of non-scholarship players from the Ivy League and Kentucky could have as many as three players who are gone from the UK campus -- en route to the NBA -- before the first mint julep is served at Churchill Downs in late April. Some peoples' translation: True student-athletes vs. mercenaries forced into a year's service by minimum age rule for the NBA draft.

Seldom in the modern era (since players began leaving early for the NBA) have two teams at more distant ends of the college sports philosophy ruler met so late in the tournament. (Those famous Georgetown-Princeton matchups? Nope. Those games were never in the Sweet 16, and Georgetown never had three potential one-and-dones on the same team, because there was no one-year age rule).

The matchups involving Northern Iowa and Saint Mary's are similar, although less dramatic. Neither is from a power conference, competing with a roster full of blue-chip recruits, but both play at a higher level than the Ivy League -- and with full athletic scholarships and lower SAT scores.

But casual fans -- and even some zealous ones -- who aren't alive in their bracket pools will gravitate to Cornell, Northern Iowa and Saint Mary's for the same, basic reasons: A passion for the (seemingly) outgunned and a love of the (seemingly) plucky overachiever.

And that's fine. Yet, to recognize Cornell only for the ways in which it is different from Kentucky shortchanges both teams, but especially Cornell. Here the word "athletic'' will rear its head, as if the only measure of athleticism is the ability to jump high or move quickly, when, in fact, athleticism can be measured in many ways. It's tiresome, going all the way back to LarryBird and Isiah Thomas (the former Piston, not the current Washington guard, whose name is spelled Isaiah). But let's go back to DeMarcus Cousins, talking about Cornell: "They're ballplayers, and they're here for a reason. They made it to the Sweet 16, so that means they can play basketball. They're a good team.''

Minutes earlier, 30 feet away from Cousins, teammate John Wall, another of the Wildcats' one-and-dones-in-waiting, parried queries on the same topic. "We're out there playing basketball,'' Wall said. "We're not out there doing schoolwork.''

Wall would beat 6-0 Cornell starting guard Chris Wroblewski in a one-on-one game. He could probably spot Wroblewski 12 points in a game to 15. Cousins would handle 7-foot Cornell senior Jeff Foote in a similar matchup. Foote might have trouble getting shot off.

But the beauty of basketball is that it's not a game played by five individuals against five other individuals. (Well, sometimes it is; a good portion of the NBA game is built on that practice. But I digress.) It's a game where the whole can truly be better than the sum of the parts, and where individuals with less-obvious talents can pool those talents into a significant force. Put it another way, Cornell can beat Kentucky. (Or get blown out; I'm not calling it either way, just saying both possibilities are on the table.)

The Big Red's offense is a symphony of precision and delivery. Ball screens are executed relentlessly. Passes are thrown to people who are in a position to do something with them. Shots are made. Boy, are shots ever made. Cornell makes 43.4 percent of its three-point shots. (OK, that's against a lot of Ivy League opponents; but they're 17-for-38 in two tournament games). Ryan Wittman, the Big Red's 6-7 leading scorer, could start for Kentucky. Point guard Louis Dale and Foote could start for a lot of teams. Kentucky will try to force a fast game and forcing anything in basketball can be tricky.

Likewise, Saint Mary's doesn't win the lobby -- "We're so old school, our point guard is named Mickey,'' says throwback senior center Omar Samhan, talking about junior point guard Mickey McConnell -- but excels at ball movement, patient execution and, like Cornell, three-point shooting. They score almost 80 points a game without fast-breaking often. Samhan is a handful in the low post, but any attempt to double down will result in a good shooter being left open ... because they're all good shooters.

Northern Iowa plays rugged inside defense and -- all together, now -- shoot effectively from three-point range. (Twenty-three years after Rick Pitino first exploited the mathematical advantage of the three, every team that lacks a Cousins is using it.)

All of them are better than they look, whether by seeding (not high) or by physical appearance (they're not John Wall). Their athleticism can be measured not in the SportsCenter moments they manufacture (usually dunks). And it's entirely possible that all three of these teams will lose terribly. (I'd bet against that.)

But before it happens, all three of them deserve to be praised not for the ways in which in they are different from Kentucky (especially), Michigan State and Baylor, but for the ways in which they are similar. They didn't get here by being plucky overachievers; they got here by being flat-out good basketball teams. Contrast sells, but performance wins.