PHILADELPHIA – When the Albany Great Danes took the court for their shoot-around at the Wachovia Center Thursday afternoon, the team wore brand new T-shirts that read "Why Not Us?" in bold letters across the chest.
"That's the code we're living by right now," said senior captain Lucious Jordan.
Assistant Coach Eric Eaton came up with the idea, which draws inspiration from the fact that no 16-seed has ever beaten a No. 1 in the history of the NCAA tournament: 0-for-84 before Thursday's games.
Regardless, Albany Coach Will Brown mixed confidence and optimism with self-deprecating humor in talking about his team's chances against top-seeded Connecticut on Friday.
"If we get up two-nothing, hopefully there's a power outage and the NCAA will have to call the game," Brown said with a laugh, adding, "We are here to win. We are not going to be in awe. We've already played two teams (UCLA and Florida) considered to be top 10 teams."
Brown pointed out that his team trailed UCLA by only three points with three minutes to go before losing 73-65; and Albany trailed Florida by only four points at the half before the Gators pulled away, 83-64.
"UConn scores a lot of highlight baskets, they are a SportsCenter team," said Brown, who, at 34, is the youngest head coach in the tournament field. "If you get caught up watching what I call style point' baskets' and listen to the oohs' and aahs' of the crowd, it will be a long night. I watched UConn play West Virginia and they must have had 15 dunks. But West Virginia kept coming down and just calmly nailed threes."
Regardless of the outcome Friday night, Albany and Brown have come a long way. The team went 5-23 two years ago before improving to 13-15 a season ago. This year, the Great Danes won the conference regular season and tournament titles, compiling a 21-10 record. Jamar Wilson, a 6-foot-1 shooting guard called the "best unknown player in America" by his coach, leads the team in scoring at nearly 18 a game.
Said Jordan, "We aren't worried about being embarrassed because we plan to play our game. We're going out there and playing to win."
WEATHERING THE STORM
Alabama-Birmingham point guard Cardell "Squeaky" Johnson grew up in New Orleans East. When word of the potential impact of Hurricane Katrina began spreading last August, Johnson called his mother constantly to find out how she was and how she planned to ride out the storm. He spoke with her each day until the storm hit, but after the levees broke, the phones went down and he lost contact.
For five days.
"A lot of the time, I just wanted to pick up and leave, but I couldn't do anything," he said.
Finally, his brother Lonnie, who lived in Baton Rouge, called him on Friday after finding out that their mother, Elise Ramsey, had weathered the storm in the Super Dome and was safely on a bus to Houston after a harrowing experience.
"It was a big experience for my family and it made us tougher as a family," Johnson said. "We make sure we tell each other we love each other every time we talk. To me, that's what came out of Katrina – we became closer."
Closer not just emotionally but geographically, too. After Johnson's boyhood home was destroyed by the hurricane, his mother and her husband, along with several other family members, relocated to Birmingham.
Johnson said his mother has told him haunting stories of what that week at the Super Dome was like, with very little food and water, and desperation on the faces of everyone around. Ultimately, however, things turned out OK. This season, his mother got to see him play more games than ever before.
"With my mom in the stands, every game I felt like I was playing for her," Johnson said.
The 5-foot-10 guard went on to have a great season for the 24-6 Blazers. An all-conference selection, he was named the Conference USA's defensive player of the year
A WORLDLY FORCE
UAB's Wen Mukubu was born in Zaire and spent much of his childhood in Belgium and France. When his family relocated to Miami for his freshman year of high school, Mukubu didn't speak any English.
He joined the JV basketball team and said he "just played" because he couldn't communicate much with his coaches or teammates. That changed quickly.
"In about six months I had conversational English down," said Mukubu, who also speaks Latin, French and Lingala, an African dialect.
Mukubu, whose English is now impeccable, refers to himself as an "energy guy" who plays tough defense and does his share of scoring – he's averaging 9.3 points and 21 minutes per game.
This summer, Mukubu plans to try out for the Belgian national team. He hopes to play professionally overseas after his career ends at UAB. He has one more year of eligibility after transferring from Arkansas two years ago.
"These guys," Mukubu said, pointing to his teammates in the locker room, "have made it easy for me to fit in. We're like a family now."
A KENTUCKY HOOPS LEGEND
Sitting courtside while the Kentucky Wildcats went through a light workout Thursday in Philadelphia, 79-year-old Bill Keightley nodded his head a bit and said, "I think we are very capable of surprising a bunch of people."
Keightly has the experience, if not exactly the unbiased perspective, to know. He's been the equipment manager for the legendary Kentucky basketball program since 1962. Along, the way, he's become a legend himself.
Affectionately known as "Mr. Wildcat," Keightley runs the "Bill Keightley Equipment Room" in Memorial Coliseum, and, according to the program's media guide, "is as much a fixture around UK basketball as the seven national championship trophies on display in the Coliseum."
Keightly wears two championship rings, one on each hand. He recalled the dramatic changes and great teams he has seen over the years, and said he still loves going to work every day. Asked if he still works full time, Keightly said, "Hell yes. All day long." He paused for a beat and added, "And most of the night."
FLAWED AND FABULOUS
Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun seemed to enjoy himself Thursday afternoon during an entertaining news conference in which he touched on his often contentious relationship with the NCAA, his recruiting philosophy and his thoughts on his deep, talented, but "flawed" team.
Of his star sophomore swingman Rudy Gay, Calhoun said he thinks Gay would benefit greatly from another year in college to hone his skills, but knows the reality of a big NBA payday will lure him away.
"I just don't think you can hold kids back from having great opportunities," Calhoun said of Gay's status as a likely top-10 draft pick should he make himself eligible for the NBA draft.
Calhoun agreed that his Huskies have as much or more depth than any team in the country, but lamented the fact that he doesn't have enough ball handlers.
"We have the best passing point guard in the country, and then we have wings," he said. "We are a flawed team with so much depth up the middle and so much depth on the wing. This team can overpower any team it plays."
Greg Abel is a freelance writer based in Baltimore whose work has appeared in Sporting News, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal. He is covering the tournament exclusively for Yahoo! Sports from Philadelphia this week and Washington, D.C., next week.