Sometimes the team that is supposed to win can still be the underdog. Sometimes Goliath is the better story.
It won't qualify as a surprise if Cal State Northridge earns a place in the NCAA tournament bracket. The Matadors won the regular-season championship in the Big West, their first, and are the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament that concludes this weekend in Anaheim. They enter Friday's semifinal against the lowest remaining seed (ESPN3, 3 p.m. ET) with Big West Player of the Year Ashlee Guay on their side, as well as the conference's top defender, Camille Mahlknecht, and two more all-conference selections, Janae Sharpe and Cinnamon Lister.
They aren't overwhelming favorites, not after edging a crowded field by a game in the regular season, but they are first in line to earn the one and only NCAA bid the league will get.
Which is not what the picture looked like even a couple of months ago. An overtime loss against Cal State Bakersfield on Jan. 2 dropped Northridge's record to 4-10 as it prepared to begin its Big West schedule. Picked to finish third in the preseason poll, there was a bright spot in December with a win against Southern California, but mostly there had been losses, some close but many not.
And the same players who had just helped Northridge to its first consecutive non-losing seasons this century wondered if the setbacks would ever stop.
"I think a lot of us kind of had that mindset," Guay said. "Especially [before the conference season], I think we were all set back because we thought we were past this. We thought we were capable of winning these games. A lot of us kind of were down, but we continued to work hard and push each other. And our coach, he's telling us we are going to be a great team. He's like, 'It's not happening now, but I can still see it in the potential.'
"Even in those losses we had, he kept us up, letting us know that we are capable of bigger and better things."
That is a familiar speech. But nobody in the locker room at the time could question Jason Flowers' eye for potential, least of all Guay.
History is constructed on a foundation of "what if" moments. Occasionally the ripple effect is global. Far more often the moment is smaller, the effect local.
For Guay and the Northridge basketball program, such a moment came during the spring of her senior year in high school. A standout athletically and academically at San Diego's Academy of Our Lady Peace, where she played basketball for her father, Guay nonetheless received little interest from college programs in the area or elsewhere. To be precise, she neared graduation without a single scholarship offer from a Division I school. She was 5-foot-7 with an unwieldy jump shot in which her guide hand came off the ball too early and left her shooting essentially one-handed. It didn't stop her from scoring points in high school, but a lot of players can hide a faulty outside shot in high school.
Chasing minutes as a recruited walk-on at a few schools was one option, junior college was another.
Then in his first year as the coach of a program that won a total of 13 games in the three seasons that immediately preceded his arrival, Flowers had seen the emails from Guay's dad trying to make a case for his daughter. But for all his program might have needed at the time, it didn't need another point guard. Until, as these things go, it did. When a player from Hawaii transferred home, Flowers had a hole to fill. A few days later he ended up at the same tournament as the guard whose dad kept pestering him.
Guay didn't really want to go to what was essentially a recruiting showcase that weekend, weary of the process and perhaps resigned to her fate by that time. It was her dad who convinced her to go one more time, rather than stay home and, as she put it, "figure out what to do with the rest of my life."
What if the older player hadn't transferred? What if Guay had played the role of stubborn teenager? What if the hard fall she took early in the only game Flowers saw had kept her out?
Instead, as Flowers remembered it, she got two chances at game-winning shots in the closing seconds. She missed both. But the confidence she showed in taking them, especially the second one, stuck in his mind. He asked around about her, convinced her to come visit a school she didn't know existed.
"I think the deal that separates players is how important getting better is to them," Flowers said. "Or how important basketball is to them. Or how important winning is to them. There are a lot of people, a lot of student-athletes, who have done this for so long, and they're supposed to do this. You know, mom and dad told them they had to do this. But [the difference is] when you find kids who really enjoy doing this, who really enjoy challenges. And Ashlee, I think, embodies that. That's really the only button you have to push is to challenge her."
He thought he had a backup point guard. Then Guay started all 31 games as a freshman and led the team in assists and steals. She duplicated both feats as a sophomore but also led the team in scoring. And that shooting motion? It's still a little different, but she shot 41 percent from the 3-point line this season.
"I don't think I want to try and prove anything to anyone," Guay said. "But maybe just for myself to know that I can do this and I'm here."
It's what makes the best March stories.