With a big game or buzzer-beating shot, T.J. Cromer could become a star this week.
Cromer is a senior guard for East Tennessee State, for those who might not know. He and so many other small-school standouts have spent the season in a college basketball witness protection program, hidden from the hype of Dick Vitale and rarely exposed on ESPN. But all of that changes this week.
In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, we search for the unlikely stars, and the betting public hunts for live underdogs.
The upsets are the highlights of March. Who does not want to see a double-digit seed take down Duke or North Carolina?
“Over the past five or 10 years, we’ve seen underdogs play so well that the gap between David and Goliath has really narrowed a lot,” Sunset Station sports book director Chuck Esposito said.
It’s a fact. A No. 15 seed won a game last year. A No. 14 seed has won at least one game in four consecutive years. The No. 12 seeds won two first-round games last year.
Butler reached back-to-back NCAA championship games in 2010 and 2011. The small-school Bulldogs are not viewed as underdogs anymore — and that goes for Gonzaga, too.
There are reasons for the underdog uprising. Many elite programs are essentially rebuilding each year after losing one-and-done players to the NBA, putting the small programs that keep players for three or four years in better position to win.
The betting market reflects the respect for the ‘dogs. Point spreads are shrinking. As a general example, a favorite that would have been laying 12 points in years past is now laying 9½.
“You don’t see as many inflated favorites,” Esposito said. “The smaller schools have been much more competitive with the big boys. That’s why some of these numbers are set lower and actually come down, because there is value.”
In the hunt for dangerous ‘dogs, here are 10 to watch this week:
Bucknell: Remember when the Bison knocked off Kansas in 2005? The Patriot League champs are 26-8 and led by 6-foot-7 junior forward Zach Thomas, an outstanding all-around player. Opponent, Line: West Virginia, -14.
Dayton: Archie Miller is a coach who knows how to win in March, and he has a slick senior point guard in Scoochie Smith. But Miller’s team has been disrespected by oddsmakers. The Flyers (24-7) drew a No. 7 seed and the underdog role. Opponent, Line: Wichita State, -6.
East Tennessee State: Cromer is the leader for the Buccaneers (27-7). He is averaging 19.1 points and shooting 40.4 percent from 3-point range. The Southern Conference champions have good size on the front line and a roster made up mostly of seniors and juniors. Opponent, Line: Florida, -10½.
Florida Gulf Coast: This is not the same Dunk City team that made a Sweet 16 run four years ago, but the talent level is similar. Junior guard Brandon Goodwin (18.2 points per game) led the Eagles (26-7) to the Atlantic Sun title. Opponent, Line: Florida State, -12.
Iona: Jordan Washington, a 6-8 senior forward, leads the team in scoring (17.9) and rebounding (7.4). The Gaels had the best field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Opponent, Line: Oregon, -15.
Nevada: It was a down year in the Mountain West, but the Wolf Pack (28-6) look legit. Marcus Marshall, Cameron Oliver, Jordan Caroline and D.J. Fenner all score more than 14 points per game and can shoot the 3. Opponent, Line: Iowa State, -6.
NC Wilmington: The Seahawks (29-5) rank 10th in the nation in scoring at 85.2 points per game, and Kevin Keatts can coach. Keep an eye on their two high-scoring guards, sophomore C.J. Bryce and senior Chris Flemmings. Opponent, Line: Virginia, -7½.
Princeton: The Ivy League entry is always dangerous. The Tigers (23-6) have won 19 in a row for coach Mitch Henderson, who has a lineup of sharp 3-point shooters. Opponent, Line: Notre Dame, -6½.
Vermont: The Catamounts (29-5) won the America East and are riding a 21-game win streak. Anthony Lamb, a 6-6 freshman forward, leads three double-figure scorers on a team that shoots well from 3-point range but lacks muscle in the middle. Opponent, Line: Purdue, -9.
Winthrop: In 2007, the Eagles upset Notre Dame. The Big South champs follow senior guard Keon Johnson, a tiny 5-7 star who’s averaging 22.5 points. Winthrop (26-6) has won eight in a row. Opponent, Line: Butler, -11.
Missing from this list is Middle Tennessee State, a 15 seed in its upset of Michigan State a year ago. The Blue Raiders (30-4), now seeded 12th, are 1-point favorites over Minnesota. The Gophers opened minus-3, but bettors have made the Big Ten team the ‘dog.