Think it's tough making sense of the Madness each March? That's nothing compared with ESPN Classic's All-Time College Basketball Tournament.
Oh, there are 64 teams divided into four regions, all battling in a single-elimination tournament. That part sounds familiar. But this bracket is composed of the 64 greatest teams in the history of the college game.
• If you'd like to ask another member of the Classic Tournament panel questions, Howie Schwab will be chatting at 3 p.m. ET.
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Kareem and Walton in the same region. Ewing vs. Russell. Air Jordan vs. Pistol Pete. Larry Bird vs. David Thompson.
And the best part is your votes will decide all of the winners live in a three-hour special next Wednesday on ESPN Classic. (Voting is now open for the first-round matchups, but you'll need to come back Wednesday to vote for the final five rounds.)
Be warned: These decisions are not easy. I was part of the panel to pick and seed the 64 teams, and that was tough enough. Picking the ultimate winner proved to be even tougher
Houston (1983) vs. Duke (1999) is the best first-round matchup in the East. The Cougars are a ridiculously strong No. 10 seed, slighted by the sands of time and by Jimmy V's slowdown miracle workers. Duke doesn't go gimmick for anyone, and so we're off to the races. Larry Micheaux and Corey Maggette trade dunks like two good ol' boys picking banjo lines. Hakeem and Elton Brand take turns jump-hooking and fading away. But Clyde Drexler's the difference. He scores inside and out, on the run and in the sets. Trajan Langdon and William Avery look like well, like Trajan Langdon and William Avery, by comparison.
Want an upset? How about the first-ever 16-over-a-1? Georgetown (1984) has a fierce defense, no doubt, but Maryland (1974), one of the best teams to not even make the NCAA Tournament field (the Terps lost an overtime clash with NC State in the ACC title game), is capable of topping the century mark, and they can board with the best of them (Len Elmore pulls down 14.7 rpg). John Lucas splits the Hoyas backcourt and goes for 30; the Terps shake up the world!
My picks for the regional final are ninth-seeded North Carolina (1957) and Bill Russell's San Francisco (1956), the No. 2 seed.
Carolina won two triple-overtime games to claim the title way back when, and slayed Kansas and the Dipper in the title game with the Heels' star player (Lenny Rosenbluth) sitting on the bench with five fouls down the stretch. That's a gut check, baby. "We're a chilly club," junior guard Tommy Kearns said when he explained how UNC could handle Chamblerlain. "We just keep it cool."
So does Big Bill, though, and his cool comes with a heaping portion of boards (20-plus) and points (20-plus) on the side. In the end, his fast-break-starting brand of glass work is enough to turn the Heels away.
In triple overtime, of course.
Best opening-weekend game: Kentucky (1978) vs. Indiana State (1979). Neither Goose Givens nor Larry Bird gets any help, and neither Givens nor Bird needs it.
Biggest mismatch: Duke (1992) vs. N.C. State (1983). It was nice what happened that night -- straight out of a dream, really -- but it's time to wake up. If you take away the sweet glow still bouncing off the Wolfpack's huge upset, you see they don't really belong in this tournament at all.
Second-biggest mismatch: Arkansas (1994) vs. Maryland (2002). Lonny Baxter actually breaks down and cries while double-teamed at center court by the Hogs' press.
Team not to sleep on: Indiana (1987). Nobody in the region has a 3-point shooter like Steve Alford.
Team to appreciate all over again: N.C. State (1974). If you do nothing else as a result of participating in this poll, review your David Thompson clips and footage. There was a time, before the blow, when he left you gasping for air and grasping for words to describe him. Revisit that time, if only in your imagination.
Lowest-rated Sweet 16 game of all time: Duke (1991) vs. Duke (1992).
Best styles-make-fights game: Kentucky (1996) vs. California (1959).
Regional final: N.C. State (1974) over Duke (1992); the No. 2 seed topples the top seed. Why? Duke's built around Christian Laettner, who has trouble shooting over and around Tom Burleson (who had seven blocks in the 1974 title game) all night. N.C. State, meanwhile, is built around Thompson, who has no trouble at all abusing Brian Davis the way Muhammad Ali once toyed with Ernie Terrell. At one point, Coach K actually throws in a towel. Thompson catches it in midair, smiles and wipes his brow, as if to say, "It's hard work beating up on your boy like this."
This region calls to mind Larry Bird's casual but unforgiving throwdown at the 1986 All-Star Game: "All right, who's playing for second place?"
UCLA is Larry Bird.
The early-'90s UNLV teams -- extraordinary teams -- have no chance here. The 31-1 1975 Indiana squad is in over its head. Arizona in 1997? Forget it. Georgetown in 1985? The Hoyas wish.
This bracket has three UCLA teams (1967, 1969 and 1972) you'd have to consider good bets to win the entire tournament. Only geography (they have to face off in the West) slows them down at all.
So, the answer to the question, "Who's playing for second?" is the same as the answer to the question, "Who wins the region?"
It's UCLA. The only drama is in whether we're talking Lew's crew or the Walton gang.
Give me Bill and the 1972 team in an upset over Alcindor's 1967 team in the round of 16, based on the fact that a young Walton was capable of muscling the young Lew a bit out of his comfort zone, and I like Keith Wilkes and Henry Bibby just slightly more on the run than I do Lucius Allen and Mike Warren.
And I'll stick with the fourth-seeded 1972 squad to win the region over the second-seeded 1969 club, which was weaker in the backcourt.
More than titles, the tournament is about stories. We love the tournament not because Kentucky won it all in 1998 but because Bryce Drew hit that magically delicious shot in the Midwest Regional along the way.
This region is full of great stories: Indiana (1976) being the last team to go undefeated; Marquette (1977) giving Al McGuire a going-away present; Isiah and Bobby feuding their way to a title (1981); Danny Manning putting Kansas (1988) on his back; Rumeal Robinson sinking free throws and raising Michigan (1989) up; Magic squaring off against Bird in 1979 for an ending that is really just the beginning; Walton's Bruins competing against their own history; and the Fab Five changing styles and exceeding expectations at every turn.
You should break down a bracket with a sober eye, weighing strengths and weaknesses and mapping out scenarios, but sometimes your heart calls the shots. I look at this region and I can't imagine how it doesn't come down to the mysteriously unstoppable Manning and his bear-hugging dad on one side, and Webber and company and their us-against-the-world edge on the other.
But that's just between us; I'd never admit to that in public.
In public, I'd say Indy over Cincy, Indy over Marquette, UCLA over Illinois (by a lot), Ohio State over Kansas, Kentucky over Michigan, Michigan State over Cincy, Duke over Carolina and UCLA over Michigan.
Then I'd say: Indiana (1976), UCLA (1968), Michigan State (1979) and UCLA (1973) would advance to the round of 16, and UCLA would beat up on itself in the regional final.
And then I'd choose fifth-seeded UCLA (1968) over second-seeded UCLA (1973) for a spot in the Final Four.
But my heart wouldn't be in it.
San Francisco (1956) vs. N.C. State (1974) and UCLA (1972) vs. UCLA (1968).
David Thompson is the irresistible force. Bill Russell is the immovable object. It's close, but give the edge to the object. And do so precisely because there's nothing stationary about Russell at all. The only contemporary analogue we have for Russell -- for his mobility, for his constant activity, for the range of his ranginess -- is Kevin Garnett. And Garnett, great as he is, couldn't carry Big Bill's jock, frankly, when it comes to D-ing up or rebounding (Russell's 13-season NBA average comes in at 22.5 per night). Defense wins championships, and Russell will take Thompson (who needs to be in and around the bucket) out of his game far more than anyone on the State side will take Bill out of his. San Francisco in a tight one.
Here's the thing about the 1968 Bruins come tournament time: They were angry. After UCLA lost to Houston in the Astrodome, on a night when Alcindor -- thanks to a scratched eye -- could hardly see (the big man had his worst shooting night of the year that night), folks were talking about how the Bruins might be vulnerable. If you're making a list of things you do not want to run into while you're moving through the NCAA Tournament, a motivated, chip-on-their-shoulders Lew Alcindor-led team that also, by the way, includes Mike Warren, Lucius Allen and Lynn Shackleford, is at the very top of your list. When UCLA got a rematch with Elvin Hayes and Houston in the national semis in 1968, it dropped the Cougars like a bad habit, 101-69. Houston coach Guy Lewis called it "the greatest exhibition of basketball I've ever seen in my life. They could have beaten anybody -- I mean anybody." I'm with Guy on this one: UCLA (1968) over UCLA (1972).
San Francisco (1956) vs. UCLA (1968).
The showdown between Russell and Alcindor is likely a push. Both will rebound very well. Alcindor will score more. Russell will be more of a defensive force.
But the game won't be decided up front. It'll hinge on what goes on on the rest of the floor.
People forget how tough a defensive club the late-'60s UCLA teams were. They pressed, they trapped, and they turned the other team over like short-order cooks flippin' flapjacks. When the Bruins beat up on Houston in the 1968 semifinals, it was their full-court defense that won the game for them.
The same will be true here. San Francisco will enter the final using backup guard Gene Brown in place of K.C. Jones (whose college eligibility expired just before the postseason in 1956), and although Brown acquits himself well, he's not ready for the pressure the Bruins bring. And that's the difference in the game.
UCLA wins again.
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.