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Saturday, March 22, 2008
Gotta love March Madness ... just wish I could see it

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- What a day here! Unbelievable. Greatest quadruple-header in the history of the NCAA tourna …

Oh, tell the truth.

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- OK, fine. This is the truth.

I'm not in Tampa, where all the insanity and suspense and unpredictability is. I'm not where the story lines stretch for miles and the drama never stops. I'm not where the pulses still are pounding well into Saturday.

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Tampa had four thrillers, including Western Kentucky's game winner over Drake. Would've been nice to see in person.

I cannot go Jayson Blair on the readers. I'm here in central Arkansas, where March Madness is a televised rumor from somewhere else. I'm at Alltel Arena, which might as well be the No-tell Motel for all the news coming out of here.

I'm at the venue Madness skipped.

Four games Friday. Zero upsets. Little drama. Nothing went down to the wire. Nothing that would be eligible for the "One Shining Moment" highlight compendium.

Hey, it happens. You have days like this in the NCAA tournament. Luck of the draw.

But when all hell is breaking loose somewhere else, it's hard for a sports writer to take. Most of us would sell an organ to have covered one of those games in Tampa -- much less four.

In this job, you always want The Story to fall into your lap. And into your laptop. Especially at this time of year, when the stakes are huge and the lights are brightest.

Well, my buddy and colleague Mark Schlabach got it all in his laptop. Got Ty Rogers and De'Jon Jackson and Siena's shocker and Villanova's comeback, back to back to back to back.

Here in Little Rock, we got crickets. We got the anti-Tampa.

We got a 14-point game followed by a 20-point game followed by a seven-point game followed by a 24-point game. All of them won by the higher seed. All of them won by the team that was leading going into the final five minutes. Number of total lead changes in four games: nine.

Hate you, Mark.

Not only did Schlabach get this embarrassment of riches, he had just finished covering that absurd SEC tournament in Atlanta a week ago. Tornadoes, Georgia, all those last-second finishes … how much madness can one man get?

This reminds me of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Covered a great gold-medal heavyweight wrestling match, American Matt Ghaffari versus unbeatable Russian Alexander Karelin. Karelin barely hung on to win 1-0. Ghaffari wept on the medal stand.

So we adjourned, full of enthusiasm, to our laptops in the media work room at the World Congress Center. Then, in sprinted two dozen writers with wild looks in their eyes. They had just seen Keri Strug cinch a gold medal for the U.S. women's gymnastics team by sticking her vault on a broken ankle.

Wrong place at the wrong time. Just like now.

While it's only right to congratulate Miami, Texas, Mississippi State and Memphis for winning here Friday, let's call this first-round quadruple-header what it was: boring to the fourth power. There were a couple of second-half comebacks, by the Hurricanes and Bulldogs, but hardly anything that would qualify as death-defying.

Jack McClinton was excellent for Miami in the lid-lifter. Scored 38 points, 32 of them in the second half. Seems like a good guy. Hard worker. Good student. Wasn't heavily recruited out of high school.

Villanova Celebrating
Hugs all around in Tampa. Pat Forde could use a hug in North Little Rock.

But in terms of story line, he's no Ty Rogers.

Charles Rhodes was a monster for Mississippi State. Scored 34 points, pulled down nine rebounds, wore out Oregon inside. And tremendous point guard Jamont Gordon made Rhodes look good with all his feeds. He had eight points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, controlling the game in the second half.

But in terms of story line, they're no De'Jon Jackson.

Austin Peay fell behind 19-3 against Texas. Game over. Texas guard A.J. Abrams lit up the Governors for 26 points. The Razorbackers in the crowd booed the Longhorns' band when it entered the arena, then booed the team harder. Didn't matter a bit.

At least the Longhorns' win set up a second-round game between Texas coach Rick Barnes and Miami coach Frank Haith, a former Barnes assistant who calls his former boss "my best friend."

"It'll be really hard, because of the respect I have for Frank," Barnes said. "He means a lot to me; I've known him a long time. … I told him the other night when we left Missouri [after the bracket had been released on Selection Sunday], 'I'm not looking forward to playing you, but I hope we get the chance.'

"He knows us. If you sat close enough to the court [Friday], you could've heard the same calls, same plays, same action. … It's obviously something you don't look forward to."

Well, that's something. A little meat on the bone. But in terms of story line, it's no Siena upset romp.

In the finale, Texas-Arlington at least died with its boots on against No. 1 seed Memphis. The Mavericks tried hard. Their fans cheered loudly. Their dance team wore belted sequin jumpsuits, like something straight out of 1970s Las Vegas. Their coach, Scott Cross, had the world's smallest cheat sheet in his hands, the size of a business card. These are the things you notice when the action on the floor cannot hold your attention.

Memphis went through the motions at times, concentration ebbing and flowing. Didn't play like a future national champion. Didn't have to. The Tigers will wait until Sunday against Mississippi State before facing their first challenge of the tournament.

There was a star sighting during that game, at least. Anfernee Hardaway, former Memphis great, was in the house. Which has to count for something.

But in terms of story line, it's no 12-seed roaring back from 18 down to win, like Nova. That has to be a record: biggest comeback victory by a double-digit seed in tournament history.

So that's the story from North Little Rock. Wish you were here.

And I was in Tampa.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.