Northern Iowa's Panthers have been called underdogs, Cinderellas, a mid-major with all those smirky, negative connotations.
None fit anymore.
Northern Iowa (30-4) is just good. Not small-conference good. Not might-pull-off-an-upset good. Flat-out good, enough to stare down big programs, not bow to them.
So when the ninth-seeded Panthers take the floor against No. 5 Michigan State (26-8) tonight in St. Louis, it won't be as underdogs. Northern Iowa has earned the right to be called equals, maybe even favorites with all the injuries the Spartans have.
"We feel we can play with everybody," Northern Iowa senior guard Ali Farokhmanesh said Thursday.
Northern Iowa pulled off a minor upset in the NCAA opener, taking out No. 8 seed UNLV on Farokhmanesh's three-pointer with 4.9 seconds left. The Panthers topped that with the NCAA's biggest bracket-buster in years, knocking off top overall seed Kansas in the second round on another three-pointer by Farokhmanesh that will go down as one of the biggest shots in program history.
"Northern Iowa is a very good team," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I've said in this tournament, since I've been in it, when you win your first game it can be lucky, but when you get to the Sweet 16, you're probably pretty good."
Health issues will make it tough on the Spartans to knock off Northern Iowa.
Michigan State lost its best player against Maryland in the second round, when point guard Kalin Lucas ruptured his Achilles' tendon. He was the Big Ten player of the year in 2008-09, Michigan State's leading scorer, assists leader, its go-to guy.
Worse yet, Chris Allen, the team's best three-point shooter, has an injured right foot and forward Delvon Roe is bothered by a sore right knee. Allen and Roe made it through a few drills in practice Thursday, but may still limited against Northern Iowa.
But while Michigan State may be down, don't count the Spartans out.
Tennessee vs. Ohio State - The Buckeyes (29-7) might look a lot different than they did when they held off the Vols in the regional semifinals three years ago, but they're no less formidable. In fact, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said this Ohio State squad might be even more daunting.
"They're a more difficult team to game-plan for," Pearl said. "What they did [in 2007] is what they did. They weren't as multiple."
Evan Turner is, without a doubt, the star of this year's Ohio State squad, and a leading candidate to add national honors to his Big Ten player of the year award, with 20 points, nine rebounds and six assists a game.
And say a team does find a way to contain Turner. David Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford have all gone off for 20-plus points this year.
But the Vols (27-8) are nothing if not resilient. This, after all, is the team that weathered the suspensions of Brian Williams, Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins and the dismissal of Tyler Smith, a two-time all-Southeastern Conference player, after they were arrested Jan. 1 when a gun and marijuana were found during a traffic stop.
Nine days after the arrest, with Williams, Tatum and Goins still out and Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince in foul trouble, the short-handed Vols upset then-No. 1 Kansas. Handily.
Tennessee also dealt Kentucky one of its two losses.