We Wish You a Merry March Madness

March 29, 2009

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Mark Andersen asked:

It’s the night before the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and not a creature is stirring. All the brackets have been filled out with care and visions of buzzer beaters and Cinderella teams dance in our heads.

The snacks are ready to go in the fridge and the email claiming you have laryngitis is written and ready to send to your boss.

For sports fans, the NCAA Tournament is a lot like Christmas. In some ways the tournament is better because you can’t watch 12 hours of basketball on December 25th and there’s no fear you’ll receive a fruitcake.

The 2009 tournament has the possibility to be one of the best in recent memories. Any of the top four seeds, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and the North Carolina Tar Heels, can cut down the nets and the field-of-65 is replete with sold, well coached teams.

Even the two seeds are strong this year. The East’s number two, Duke, has the best RPI in the country and they won their conference tournament. Blake Griffin, probably the number one overall pick in the next NBA draft, anchors a solid Oklahoma team that the second seed in the South region. And Memphis, the West’s region number two seed, has won 31 games this season and 61 Conference USA games in a row.

On Thursday, the action begins in Philadelphia, Portland, Kansas City and Greensboro. College powerhouses like Texas, Purdue, Maryland and Illinois will take to the court and try to advance to the second round.

Friday, the focus shifts to Dayton, Miami, Minneapolis, and Boise. Schools like Syracuse, Marquette, Kansas, and Pac-Ten Tournament champions USC will begin what they hope will be long tournament runs.

The Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight will be held a week later in Indianapolis, Glendale, Boston and Memphis. The Final Four will be held in Detroit on April 4th, with the championship game played Monday night, April 6th.

What teams will reach the Final Four? Like Christmas, everyone has a wish list, it’s called a bracket. And everyone, regardless of how much they like or dislike college basketball, fills one out.

Even President Obama took a break from fixing the economy to fill out a bracket. He picked North Carolina to win it all. That must make him the Grinch to Duke fans.

While we hope the tournament matches our brackets, we don’t mind if it deviates as long as it produces a good Cinderella story. It’s not the NCAA tournament until there’s at least one major upset.

A lot of people think UCLA, the East’s region sixth seed and a team that has reached the Final Four each of the past three years, will fall to eleventh seeded Virginia Commonwealth. Some experts think another eleventh seed, Dayton, will be this year’s George Mason.

Twelfth seeds Western Kentucky and Wisconsin, as well as eleventh seed Utah State, are also primed to slay Goliath.

Don’t expect miracles from the Eagles of American University. This plucky team from the Patriot League is playing Villanova in Philadelphia.

And speaking of travel, Portland, Oregon is finally hosting tournament games but Portland State doesn’t get the advantage of home cooking, they have to travel to Boise. However, two other Northwest teams, Gonzaga and the University of Washington, have the benefit of making the short trip to the Rose City.

Both Arizona and Arizona State have to travel to Miami while Florida State and Cornell sojourn west to Boise. Hopefully it’s not an NCAA violation for players to keep their frequent flyer miles.

Of course the “Red Rider BB Gun” of the NCAA Tournament is the buzzer beater. These indelible last second shots are so dramatic we usually remember them instead of actual winner of the tournament.

For instance, UConn’s Richard Hamilton and his fade-away jumper that ended the Washington Huskies’ tournament run in 1998. In that same year, Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew nailed a three at the buzzer to defeat Mississippi.

In 1983 championship game, Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State defeated heavily favored Houston-that was the Phi Slama Jama team with Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. In one of college basketball’s greatest last second shots, Lorenzo Charles grabbed Derek Wittenberg’s miss and slammed it home right before time expired.

Of course, the greatest last second shot in tournament history occurred in 1992. Duke’s Christian Laettner, who didn’t miss a shot the entire game, grabbed Grant Hill’s long baseball pass, faked, dribbled once, and then nailed a turn-around jumper to give the Blue Devils the improbable victory over the Kentucky Wildcats.

Sadly for Kentucky fans, this year marks the first time the Wildcats have missed the NCAA tournament since 1991. Conversely, this is Michigan’s first tournament appearance since 1998.

In other tournament trivia, North Dakota State isn’t getting a dime for participating in March Madness. That’s the price they have to pay for joining the Summit League. Also, North Dakota State is the first school to reach the tournament in its first year in Division I since Louisiana-Lafayette did it back in 1972.

Jeff Jones and Ralph Sampson were teammates at Virginia. Jeff Jones is now the coach of American and Sampson’s son plays center for Minnesota. The two teams could meet in the Sweet 16.

If Louisville coach Rick Pitino reaches the Final Four it will be his sixth trip and will move him past Guy Lewis, Lute Olson and Roy Williams into sole possession of sixth place.

The last five times North Carolina have been a number one seed they have reached the Elite Eight or better. Also, the Tarheels have earned the most number one seeds (12) in tournament history.

We all want to win the office pool, we all want our favorite team to cut down the nets and we all hope the underdog pulls off the impossible upset. But even if none of these things happens, the NCAA Tournament is still a holiday for sports fans.

For like most holidays the NCAA Tournament will bring unbridled happiness and joy to scores of fans and players. And like most holidays, the tournament will also bring heartache, pain and indigestion.


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