This year's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament has been a showcase for the parity of the sport nationwide. At this point, it's not even surprising to see all of these lower seeds knock off their higher-ranked counterparts at such a regular rate.
Every March Madness, schools come out of seemingly nowhere to make deep runs in the tourney and captivate the country's attention. We haven't even got to the first weekend yet, and there have already been a host of big upsets pulled off by Cinderella teams in the making.
Here's a look at three of the best candidates to steal the spotlight as giant killers as they try to reach the Final Four.
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Midwest Region: No. 14 Mercer
With a momentous 78-71 victory over the No. 3 Duke Blue Devils on Friday afternoon, the Mercer Bears have clinched the signature underdog win of the tournament so far.
Mercer features a starting five of all seniors, and they showed their poise from start to finish. The Bears didn't need a buzzer-beater or miracle to pull off the win against the perennial powerhouse—they just played a great brand of basketball that allowed them to dictate the tempo of the game.
Duke shot just 35.5 percent from the field, with stars Jabari Parker (14 points on 4-of-14 shooting) and Rodney Hood (six points on 2-of-10 shooting) limited by a stout Bears defense. Meanwhile, Mercer shot 55.6 percent from the floor and had five players in double figures, led by Jakob Gollon's 20 points.
As Nicole Auerbach of USA Today reported, respected Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski went to Mercer's locker room after the game in a great show of class:
Coach K just came into Mercer locker room: "If we got beaten, at least we got beaten by a hell of a basketball team." pic.twitter.com/5vrkF4RQYR— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) March 21, 2014
Anthony White Jr. hit a three-pointer to knot things up at 63-63 with two minutes, 42 seconds to go, before the Bears went on a game-winning 6-0 run that featured an and-one conversion by Daniel Coursey with 1:08 left in regulation.
Once the buzzer sounded, the Bears put on their dancing shoes. Kevin Canevari has become an instant sensation with his stellar rendition of the "Nae Nae" dance, while other teammates videobombed postgame interviews with classic moves like the robot.
You have to be a likeable team to be Cinderella,and how can you not root for the Bears after a day like that? What's best is the team got to share the moment with a raucous student traveling contingent that made the trip from Macon, Ga. to Raleigh N.C.
Up next is a clash with No. 11 Tennessee, which knocked off UMass, 86-67, on Friday. These two teams have a bit of history, as Mercer ended Tennessee's season in the first round of the NIT last year.
East Region: No. 12 Harvard
Harvard was a popular pick to upset No. 5 seed Cincinnati in the second round, and the Crimson didn't disappoint, claiming a 61-57 victory to advance to a third-round matchup with Michigan State.
The Crimson held a 36-29 lead at halftime but it turned into a back-and-forth affair in the second period. Ultimately, a pair of guards took over for Harvard to lead the team to victory.
Sophomore Siyani Chambers struggled mightily throughout the game, but he finished strong. Despite starting the game 1-of-9 from the field, he hit a big jumper with two minutes left to put Harvard up, 56-53, before nailing three free throws to preserve the lead.
Even on a night when he was 2 of 10, Siyani Chambers’ play down the stretch was the reason #Harvard pulled off the 61-57 upset over Cincy.— Julian Benbow (@julianbenbow) March 20, 2014
Ivy League Player of the Year Wesley Saunders also hit a couple of late free throws in the game as part of his well-rounded effort that featured 12 points, four assists and three rebounds.
Under coach Tommy Amaker, the Crimson have built a strong program in recent years with three straight NCAA Tournament appearances and victories in each of the past two years. This team full of big athletes is also breaking the mold of what most people think when it comes to Ivy League basketball.
Eddie Pells of the Associated Press gave some perspective on Harvard's recent run of success"
The players say the key to following this one up is turning the page more quickly than they did last year. They all came to Harvard because Amaker wooed them on the idea of making history.
Two years ago, they got the Crimson to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1946. Last year, they won their first tournament game in 102 years of basketball. This year, to take another step forward, they must overcome one of the best teams, and programs, in the country.
'We're getting better and better slowly, so obviously, the next step would be to win two games in the NCAA tournament,' senior Brandyn Curry said. 'That's what we're aiming to do. At least.'
With a win over heavily favored No. 4 Michigan State in the next round, Harvard would be a bona fide Cinderella heading into the Sweet 16. The Spartans have one of the deepest teams in the country and are picked by many to go all the way to the Final Four, but Amaker's group will make any team grind on the court.
West Region: No. 12 North Dakota State
Star Taylor Braun didn't put the Bison on his back in the second round, but he didn't have to. North Dakota State weathered the storm from a talented Oklahoma squad on Thursday, pulling off an 80-75 victory in overtime.
While the athletic, 6'7" Braun went 3-of-11 from the floor en route to 11 points, guard Lawrence Alexander scored 28 points (10-of-15) while pulling down eight rebounds, hitting four three-pointers and dishing out four assists.
Alexander also hit the game-tying three-pointer with 12 seconds left in regulation that made the score 66-66, before adding six more points in the extra period to help NDSU earn the victory. Chantel Jennings of ESPN.com shared a funny anecdote about NDSU coach Saul Williams from Friday's media session:
Saul Phillips says today he kissed the spot on the floor where Lawrence Alexander hit the 3 to tie at the end of regulation.— Chantel Jennings (@ChantelJennings) March 21, 2014
Jennings also detailed the fun-loving attitude that the Bison have showed as they try to make waves in March Madness.
It’s refreshing to see a team that makes basketball look like it’s the best thing it has ever done, not like it’s a 9-to-5 job that it's been forced into. It’s refreshing to see a coach win a game and want to hug anyone within arm’s reach. North Dakota State is refreshing and is one of the reasons March Madness is so enjoyable.
'I just want to keep coaching this team,' Phillips said. 'I don’t want to say goodbye to this locker room. … I’m looking forward to the pregame meal on Saturday. I’m looking forward to the moments that maybe you guys don’t see, because I have an appreciation for this group.'
After leading the nation with a 51 percent field-goal percentage during regular-season play, it's no surprise that the Bison shot 52.9 percent on Thursday.
The fact that the team was able to win without Braun at his best has to make future NDSU opponents weary. On Saturday (6:10 p.m. ET, TNT), the Bison will face off against against No. 4 seed San Diego State with a spot to the Sweet 16 on the line.