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Column: Unsung teams and unexpected heroes — such as Northwestern’s Ryan Langborg and Illinois’ Dain Dainja — are what March Madness is all about

OMAHA, Neb. — The best part about the opening weekend of March Madness is the element of surprise.

Whether it’s a low-seeded team such as Oakland, Yale, James Madison or Grand Canyon springing an upset or an unknown player such as Oakland’s Jack Gohlke, Northwestern’s Ryan Langborg, Illinois’ Dain Dainja or Yale’s John Poulakidas introducing themselves on the national stage, the notion that that anyone or any team has a shot at glory is real.

It might last for only a day or, if everything falls into place, another weekend or two. But that one moment is what sets the NCAA Tournament apart from every other postseason.

In the NFL and NBA playoffs, you know who has a chance to play the hero because you’ve watched or read about them all season. With the exception of an unknown such as Randy Arozarena making a star turn in October once in a blue moon, the Major League Baseball playoffs are virtually the same.

Only in March Madness can a Jack Gohlke become as prominent as a Zach Edey in one night.

But you can go from anonymity to a known entity only once and then you’re a marked man. Illinois guard Marcus Domask watched from his hotel room in Omaha on Thursday as No. 14 seed Oakland upset third-seeded Kentucky behind Gohlke’s 10 3-pointers. Unlike most of the rest of America, Domask knew Gohlke was the real deal.

“It honestly didn’t surprise me,” Domask said Friday before the Illini practiced for Saturday’s second-round game against Duquesne. “We had played Oakland, so I was familiar with them. Gohlke is from Wisconsin and he’s a grade above me, so I’ve been familiar with him too. So what he’s doing and what Oakland is doing really didn’t surprise me.”

Of course, in this new era of NIL, being a March Madness hero also means the possibility of making some money. Gohlke was deluged with offers after Thursday’s performance.

“To be honest, I’ve definitely gotten a lot of messages, but I haven’t been able to comb through them,” Gohlke said Friday. “Yeah, I want to make money. I want to go through them. But I care more about winning the next game (Saturday against North Carolina State).”

Everyone loves a Cinderella, even as the underdogs shun the old cliche, as Gohlke did. Most of these players won’t have a professional career, which makes it easier to root for them.

But sometimes history can repeat itself, as it did for Northwestern’s Langborg. He enjoyed Princeton’s wild ride in last year’s tournament, helping lead the Tigers to the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed. Since graduate students are barred from playing in the Ivy League, Langborg opted to enter the transfer portal for his final year of eligibility, and Northwestern coach Chris Collins reeled him in.

Langborg averaged only 12 points during the season but on Friday led the Wildcats to a thrilling overtime win over Florida Atlantic with a career-high 27 points, hitting four of their first five shots in OT, including two huge 3s. Langborg, Brooks Barnhizer and star Boo Buie will be under the spotlight Sunday (6:45 p.m., truTV) when the ninth-seeded Wildcats face No. 1 seed UConn for a spot in the Sweet 16. Buie said they’re ready for the challenge.

“Usually us three are the ones that are playing the majority of high minutes in those types of games,” Buie said. “It’s our job as leaders to make sure that going into that overtime period, we’re telling each other ‘This is our game.’ We are just telling each other ‘We are built for these moments.’ ”

No one is satisfied with one opening-weekend win. It’s only natural to want more. But sometimes it takes only one win to lead to lasting success.

“We are trying to build something that’s sustainable, something that can last,” Collins said. “And the more you can win, and the more you can get on this stage. … Perception is everything, guys. You know that. You get a player like Boo Buie, you get a player like Ryan and Brooks, and now you can talk to high school players and talk to other guys and say, ‘Hey, Northwestern ain’t all bad. We play in a fun style. We win. Our atmosphere and our arena were sold out this year.’

“And all those things mean so much to me because it’s been so much work by so many people over 11 years to get to this point.”

Playing the portal is now part of the game, making everyone a potential free agent. Dainja, whose season-high 21 points led the third-seeded Illini past Morehead State and into Saturday’s game against No. 11 seed Duquesne, transferred from Baylor. Gohlke was a Division II player at Hillsdale College before transferring to Oakland.

Retiring Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot believes the portal “teaches (some players) to quit” because of the unlimited number of times they can change schools.

“It’s not good for anybody,” Dambrot said Friday. “It’s not good for college basketball. It’s not good for fans. It’s not good for the student-athlete and it certainly isn’t good for coaches. I like the fact that they make money.

“I’m a former financial adviser, so I wish there was a way to put it in a trust so they understand that this is money that needs to be used in the future to help their lives and not spend it all. As we all know, adults don’t do a very good job with money. Young people certainly aren’t going to do a very good job with money.”

But most players aren’t getting rich in NIL money. Illinois players wore T-shirts to Omaha with their teammate’s pictures on them, thanks to the campus NIL store.

“Instead of taking your own gear for family members and friends, we all grabbed each others and said we’d wear it,” Illini guard Luke Goode said. “It’s the connectivity.”

That connectivity is what March Madness is all about — and why it always lives up to the hype.