Truly a Sweet 16 field for everyone
The NCAA is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its men's basketball tournament this year, which might be the best-timed public relations move the folks in Indianapolis have dreamed up in a long time.
Because no matter how much the NCAA continues to bungle everything else, the tournament is infallible.
It never disappoints.
Besides the loyalty of a golden retriever greeting you at the back door, what else can you count on with such regularity?
After a frenetic weekend of the annual upsets, buzzer-beaters and Cinderellas that make up the NCAA tourney vocabulary, we emerge from the only madness you will not wish to be cured of to find a Sweet 16 that is familiarly delectable.
From the bracket designed for every man, woman and child, we are left with 16 teams that suit everyone's tastes.
There are underdogs and chalk teams, future NBA stars and temporary media darlings. There is a school whose campus sits in the hardscrabble Philly neighborhood of Olney and one where the dorm rooms overlook a beach.
In other words, literal Shockers and figurative ones, too.
Which is exactly how the second weekend ought to be.
We are a country that roots hard for underdogs, and so Florida Gulf Coast, La Salle and Wichita State are welcome additions to the party. (Sorry, Oregon is a 12-seed Cinderella about as much as I am Amanda Marcum's body double.)
The FGCU story, after all, is merely the old American dream story retooled with palm trees and a basketball. It's an audacious coach with a vision taking a flier on a place he didn't know anything about, assembling a ragtag group of hoops immigrants and making them realize his dream together.
La Salle and Wichita State are cut from similar cloths.
The Explorers are the pioneers, living up to their nickname. In place of wagons, they are chartering their way across the country, following the path blazed by an earlier hoops Magellan, VCU's Shaka Smart. La Salle left its campus last Monday for the First Four in Dayton, kept going to Kansas City for the first weekend and is now off to Los Angeles for the regional. Go West, young men! And hope that your coach packed enough suits.
Wichita State is the ignored middle child. The Shockers played second fiddle to the Doug McDermott Show all season in the Missouri Valley. But while the Bluejays return to Omaha, Neb., and move on to the Big East, Wichita State is still playing, with a blessing, no less, from Tim Tebow.
That's like the sports version of laying on of hands.
We also have upstarts, if not altogether underdogs. Of the 16 remaining, all but six began the season in the preseason Top 25. Aside from the aforementioned true underdogs, the other three outside the fray were Marquette, Oregon and Miami.
The Golden Eagles weren't ranked with good reason. Buzz Williams lost both the Big East Player of the Year and the conference's leading scorer. And they weren't the same guy.
Yet here is Marquette again, the cockroach of college basketball (and I mean that in a flattering way), back in the regional semifinals for the third consecutive year.
Meantime, Oregon is the pipsqueak in the street fight, carrying around a crater of a chip on its shoulder. We all know and love that kid.
With point guard Dominic Artis in the lineup, the Ducks were 21-4 and won the Pac-12 tournament. To which the NCAA selection committee said, "Meh." To which Oregon countered & well, we won't say what the Ducks said, but instead concentrate on what they did -- beat the ever-loving bejesus out of Oklahoma State and Saint Louis.
And finally there is Miami, a school that was about as synonymous to college basketball success as South Beach is to the Iditarod.
But for all that underdog fun, we are also a nation that takes our superpower role rather seriously. We exalt winners and celebrate greatness like no place else on Earth.
We need the big boys. The little-engines-that-could stories are fun and entertaining, but ultimately they need a foil to really work well. What would the USA hockey team have been without the evil Soviets? Would Villanova's national championship win have resonated for so long if the Wildcats hadn't beaten hated and favored Georgetown?
Duke versus Butler was one thing; VCU versus Butler entirely different.
So the fact that somehow, despite the entertaining mayhem, the first weekend delivered safely 10 of the 16 highest-seeded teams to the sweetest of 16s, means this bracket remains entirely box-store-big American in its appeal.
Of the 16 teams left, 13 have won at least one national championship (Florida Gulf Coast, Miami and Wichita State the lone exceptions). Eight were in the preseason top 10.
One region alone -- the Midwest -- offers a Hall of Fame coach (Mike Krzyzewski), could-be Hall of Fame inductee next month (Rick Pitino), a future Hall of Fame lock (Tom Izzo) and well, OK, Dana Altman, but he's one of the most respected coaches around.
In the East, you have Syracuse versus Indiana. The two, you might have heard (and if you haven't, you will all week) once crossed paths in a memorable little title game in 1987. The words Keith and Smart still cannot be mentioned in the same sentence in central New York.
Ohio State anchors the West Regional, while Kansas, Michigan and Florida hold court in the South.
Of course the fourth team in that latter region is Florida Gulf Coast, the brashest new kids on the blocks -- the new-wave Dr. Dunkensteins with a video to prove it.
In March 1996, the University of Florida named Billy Donovan as its new head basketball coach. He was kind of like the Eagles, young and brazen, with an up-tempo style of play.
He also has more tenure in Gainesville, Fla., than the FGCU buildings have footings in the swampland.
The school didn't welcome its first student until January 1997, 10 months after Donovan started at Florida.
Seriously, you don't think the NCAA tournament wins every time?
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