SAN JOSE -- When the NCAA tournament returns to the South Bay on Thursday, do not expect glamour and glitz. Expect grit and drama. I'll take grit and drama. I'll also take a rare chance to see one of our Bay Area teams -- Cal -- in an NCAA game near home.
Nevertheless, facts are facts. Going strictly by the numbers, we are the boondocks trailer court of this year's bracket. None of the eight teams coming to HP Pavilion is ranked in the Associated Press top 10. We will see two No. 4 seeds, none higher. We will not see college basketball's perennial royalty (Louisville, Kansas, Duke). We will not even see the best teams from the West (Gonzaga, Arizona, New Mexico).
But so what? Let's focus on what we will see: Some of the best stories and best matchups of the first round. Says who? Says me.
I remember how in 2010, the last time early-round games were played here, there was similar initial disappointment. None of those royalty/glamour programs was involved, and one of the better teams was a scruffy No. 5 seed named Butler. Then the Bulldogs scrapped their way through two thrilling games here and reached the NCAA title game two weeks later.
I'm not certain which of the teams here this week could be the Butler of 2010. But several have potential. Even better, each of the eight has a compelling and/or entertaining storyline that could capture the imagination of hoop fans who show up at The Tank.
Oh, yes. The eight teams also have popular mascots -- two of which actually have the same exact nickname -- and they all feature large freakish costumed heads that can burn an image into your brain and possibly create nightmares. It's part of college basketball tradition. The mascots, I mean. Not the nightmares.
Let's review those storylines and mascots, in no particular order: Cal: It is a mild shock that the Golden Bears received an invitation to play in San Jose against UNLV. The placement violates a couple of the tournament committee's rules, especially one about keeping only the higher-seeded teams near their home campuses (the Bears are a No. 12 seed).
So what happened? Well, the tournament committee was either (A) showing respect and support for Cal coach Mike Montgomery, who took some heat this year for shoving star player Allen Crabbe in a huddle kerfuffle; or (B) was boxed into putting Cal in San Jose because of other "rules." Incidentally, Montgomery has coached an NCAA game at HP before -- in 1997, when his Stanford team lost an overtime thriller to Utah in the West Regional semifinals.
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 17: Cody Ellis #24 of the Saint Louis Billikens reacts against Virginia Commonwealth Rams during the Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament - Championship Game at Barclays Center on March 17, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Saint Louis Billikens defeated Virginia Commonwealth Rams 62-56. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Mascot: Oski the Bear. Saint Louis: This team is easily the tournament's most inspirational story. Players were stunned and saddened when coach Rick Majerus took a leave of absence and subsequently died of a heart condition on Dec. 1. His assistant, Jim Crews, assumed the job and led St. Louis to a 27-6 record and the Atlantic 10 conference title.
As you can imagine, the Billikens know how to put things in perspective and roll with adversity. Sunday, the team bus was caught in bad traffic en route to the airport after winning the A-10 tournament in New York. So the team pulled over at a shopping center and watched the NCAA selection show in the television department of a Best Buy store.
Mascot: The Billiken. (Don't ask. It's an imaginary good-luck creature.) Oregon: The school has about 25,000 alumni in the Bay Area, and you can expect a lot of Ducks fans in the house at HP because their team is on a roll after winning the Pac-12 tournament with a stunning title game victory over UCLA. The Ducks' eye-grabber is 5-foot-8 guard Johnathan Loyd, who seems to operate at fast-forward while the rest of the game is at regular speed.
Mascot: Donald Duck. Oklahoma State: This team is all about Marcus Smart, a freshman guard who, if he turns pro, will be an NBA lottery pick. The Cowboys also have a slight semi-local connection. Their coach, Travis Ford, was a star player at Kentucky and was invited to training camp by the Golden State Warriors before being cut. He also played a small role in the Marlon Wayans basketball film, "The Sixth Man."
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 16: Michael Carter-Williams #1 of the Syracuse Orange huddles with his teammates against the Louisville Cardinals during the final of the Big East Men's Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 16, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Mascot: Pistol Pete. Montana: The underdog Grizzlies were also part of the 2010 field at HP Pavilion and played tough before losing to New Mexico by five points. Then, as now, they play a fundamental-grinding style coached by Wayne Tinkle, whose family will have split allegiances this week. Tinkle's daughter, Joslyn, is a starter for the Stanford women's team that will play its own opening-round NCAA game this weekend at Maples Pavilion.
Mascot: Monte the Grizzly Bear. New Mexico State: The Aggies already have visited town once this season, beating San Jose State in February at the Event Center. They probably have the tallest roster in the country, with players who stand 7-foot-5, 6-10, 6-10, 6-8 and 6-7. Most common phrase used by the team on airplanes: "Watch your head!"
Mascot: Pistol Pete. (That's right. Same as Oklahoma State. I propose a duel.) Syracuse: The Orangemen and St. Louis are the two No. 4 seeds at HP Pavilion. But among the San Jose Eight, only Syracuse has a coach who has won the national championship -- the perpetually-under-siege Jim Boeheim. Now 68 years old, he led his underdog team to the Big East title game over the weekend and is smiling more than usual. Could be an ominous sign. Or not.
Mascot: Otto the Orange. UNLV: If any team has a beef with the placement here, it's the Rebels. As a higher-seed, they shouldn't have to beat Cal on the Bears' semi-home court to advance. But that's what UNLV must do. No, Jerry Tarkanian doesn't coach them any more. Dave Rice does, and he's put together a talented group that should prove its chops here.
Mascot: Hey, Reb.
There you go. Pick a favorite. But mostly, enjoy the show. And the grit.