Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Madness of March

What is March Madness? Well, one definition of Madness is intense excitement or enthusiasm. Perfect. There isn’t a better way to describe the feeling that we all get when we first see the brackets, break down the matchups, hear the CBS music and listen to Gus Johnson make sounds that don’t really sound human. Everyone gets caught up in the Madness, it is much more than just a basketball tournament. So therefore, March Madness is the intense excitement and enthusiasm that everyone is engulfed in while doing anything that has to do with the NCAA tournament. Finally, the feeling is here. March Madness is here. This is the best 3 week stretch of any sport at any level, ever. So after months of the regular season, weeks of bracketology, and all 30 conference tournaments, we can finally analyze the tournament and make our predictions. But don’t be mistaken, March Madness is not just a simple college basketball tournament.

There is a certain euphoria that is present during March Madness. It technically starts on Selection Sunday, although really it starts when the season starts in November. On Selection Sunday, we get our first taste of what this tournament is going to bring us. We get the matchups, we look for the possible Cinderella stories, the potential instant classic games (which we pray Gus Johnson will be announcing), and we fill out the brackets. I’m going to do the same thing, and let all of you readers see what I’m talking about.

Cinderella Stories
Everyone loves to root for the underdog. Rocky was an underdog, and everyone wanted him to beat Apollo, Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago, and even Thunder Lips. It is easy to jump on the bandwagon of the team that is exceeding expectations. The popular question that everyone has asked since 2006 is “Who is this years George Mason?” The miraculous run by George Mason wasn’t projected by any experts. That is what is so great. No one saw it coming, but everyone was pulling for them by the time they got to the Sweet 16. First they knocked off powerhouses Michigan St, and North Carolina in the first weekend of the tournament. Then in the Sweet 16 they beat fellow Cinderella story Wichita St. That’s when the story should’ve ended. They had Connecticut in the Elite 8. In no way George Mason should have won that game, but it wasn’t midnight yet. They were taking on a 30-3 powerhouse from the Big East, stacked with future pros. It didn’t matter. The slipper still fit on the foot of George Mason. That is March Madness. The unexpected and sometimes seemingly impossible can happen. No other Cinderella team has had the Final Four success that tiny George Mason has had. Since 2003 (the first tournament I can remember watching all hours of the tournament), there have been plenty of upsets and surprises. In 2004, 9 seed UAB first beat 8 seed Washington in the 1st round, and then stunned the favorite 1 seed Kentucky in a 76-75 thriller. Kentucky wasn’t the only 1 seed to go down in the 2nd round in 2004 though. 1 seed Stanford was upset by 8 seed Alabama who advanced all the way to the Elite 8 before eventual champion Connecticut handled them. The most popular Cinderella story of 2004 was 7 seed Xavier who was lead by Romain Soto and Lionel Chalmers. Xavier was only 3 points away from beating 1 seed Duke in the Elite 8, and that was after beating 2 seed Mississippi St, and 3 seed Texas in the previous 2 rounds. In 2005 the unheard of UW-Milwaukee Panthers were a 12 seed who made there way to the Sweet 16 before going down to eventual runner up Illinois. The most popular Cinderella story of that year was 7 seed West Virginia, but they will be discussed later. George Mason was the story in 2006. In 2007, we saw a predominantly upset free bracket. The lowest seed that made the sweet 16 was 7 seed UNLV. 2008 saw two 12 seeds (Villanova and Western Kentucky) reach the Sweet 16. But 2008 was all about 10 seed Davidson and Stephen Curry. Stephen Curry took the tournament and sports nation by storm and stole the spotlight in every game Davidson played. The “Baby Faced Assassin” had one of the single greatest tournaments in recent memory. 40 points in an upset win over 7 seed Gonzaga, 30 points in a bigger upset win over 2 seed Georgetown, 33 points in a sweet 16 win over Wisconsin and 25 points in a narrow loss to eventual champion Kansas. Stephen Curry put himself on the map and Cinderella’s on the map as well. So who is this years Cinderella, or Cinderella’s? In my eyes there are plenty of candidates in this years wide open field.

In the Midwest Region, I see 3 potential Cinderella teams. From the time I saw 9 seed Northern Iowa play in the Missouri Valley conference championship, I said that the Panthers would be my Cinderella pick. Despite the fact that they will face overall #1 seed Kansas in the 2nd round, I’m not changing my prediction. They play good fundamental basketball and seriously D up. I also see 13 seed Houston and 11 seed San Diego St as potential Cinderella’s. Houston has the nations leading scorer Aubrey Coleman, and he may be able to carry Houston to a 1st round upset over Maryland. San Diego St. is at the different end of the spectrum of Houston. They have a balanced scoring attack and took down tournament teams New Mexico and UNLV in the Mountain West tournament.

In the West Region 13 seed Murray St won the Ohio Valley Conference championship and won 30 games along the way. It may seem far fetched, but 14 seed Oakland is a dangerous team. If there is going to be a 14 over 3 upset this year it will be Oakland over Pittsburgh. 12 seed UTEP has a dynamic duo in Randy Culpepper and Derrick Caracter that can cause problems. And finally I see BYU as a team that could reach the Elite 8. Jimmer Fredette can carry BYU to wins, and Jonathan Tavernari was the Mountain West 6th Man of the Year.

Over to the East Region, I see one team that can make a Cinderella run. The Cornell Big Red have the recipe to pull some upsets in the tournament. NCAA Tournament experience, a senior point guard in Louis Dale, go-to scorer Ryan Wittman, and they can shoot the lights out. Cornell shot 43% from 3 point range, and that makes up for their lack of athleticism. Let’s not forget, Cornell nearly upset #1 Kansas early in the year, losing by only 5 points. Don’t sleep on Cornell.

And finally in the South Region, which I think is wide open, there are a few potential Cinderella’s. 12 seed Utah St. and 13 seed Siena can both pull 1st round upsets. Utah St. will practically be playing a home game in Spokane. And Siena is playing a Purdue team that is in rough shape. 3 seed Baylor is hardly considered a Cinderella, but considering it has been a while since they have won a tournament game I would put them in this category. And finally I would include the Richmond Spiders. They have a strong backcourt and are aggressive defensively. I like them over St. Mary’s (who I had vowed not to pick in any tournament game), and they could pose a challenge to Villanova’s run to a 2nd straight Final Four.

Classic Matchups
The NCAA Tournament is so great in main part because of the games. It was obvious that last year’s tournament was a down year for tournaments, simply because of the lack of exciting games. So what games have been the best “instant classic” games since 2003? I broke it down and listed the top 3 games from each round since 2003.

1st Round
1. #4 Syracuse vs. #13 Vermont (2005) - Big upset, great game, and Gus Johnson was on the call (We’ll get to him later)
2. #6 Duke vs. #11 VCU (2007) - Game winning shot by Eric Maynor killed the hopes of Duke fans… I love it.
3. #8 Ohio St. vs. #9 Siena (2009) – Double OT thriller, with a few ONIONS!!!

2nd Round
1. #1 Arizona vs. #9 Gonzaga (2005) – Perhaps the best NCAA tournament game I’ve ever seen. Luke Walton vs. Blake Stepp… It doesn’t sound like the best individual matchup, but it was legendary.
2. 2007 2nd Round - Too many good games to give just 1 spot. Memorable games were: #5 Butler vs. #4 Maryland, #3 Pitt vs. #11 VCU, #6 Vanderbilt vs. #3 Washington St., #1 Ohio St. vs. #9 Xavier, #5 Tennessee vs. #4 Virginia
3. #2 Georgetown vs. #10 Davidson (2008) – The Stephen Curry show. Down big at the half, his legend grew by scoring 25 2nd half points to lead the Wildcats to the victory.

Sweet 16
1. #2 UCLA vs. #3 Gonzaga (2006) – Two words… Gus Johnson! It pains me deeply to put this game here considering I was on the Adam Morrison bandwagon at the time, but it’s too good not to include.

2. #1 Connecticut vs. #5 Washington (2006)– The underrated great game of all NCAA tournaments. Brandon Roy did all he could to get Washington past UConn, but UConn was too strong.

3. 2007 Sweet 16 – The same case made for the 2007 2nd round, so many good games. No question that 2007 was the best tournament of recent memory. Memorable games were: #1 Kansas vs. #4 Southern Illinois, #1 Ohio St vs. #5 Tennessee, #2 Memphis vs. #3 Texas A&M, #2 Georgetown vs. #6 Vanderbilt.

Elite 8
1. 2005 Elite 8 – Another case where there were too many games worthy to just mention one. 3 games, 4 total overtimes. They were- #1 Illinois vs. #3 Arizona, #4 Louisville vs. #7 West Virginia (PITTSNOGGLE), #5 Michigan St. vs. #2 Kentucky
2. #1 Connecticut vs. #11 George Mason (2006) – The game that gave all underdogs in the NCAA tournament hope.
3. #1 Pittsburgh vs. #3 Villanova – A big east clash that had the only memorable finish in a poor 2009 NCAA Tournament. Thank you Scottie Reynolds for giving the 2009 tournament a little credibility.

Final Four
Surprisingly, the Final Four has featured practically no good games since 2003. The only case was 2004, where there were 2 close games. #2 Connecticut beat #1 Duke 79-78 (Ha-ha more Duke misery) and #3 Georgia Tech defeated #2 Oklahoma St. 67-65.

National Championship
1. #3 Syracuse vs. #2 Kansas (2003) – Carmelo and the Orange almost blew a huge lead, but hung on to win the championship.
2. #1 North Carolina vs. #1 Illinois (2005) - Clearly the two best teams in college basketball. UNC won the title over possibly the best team not to win the title of the decade.
3. #1 Kansas vs. #1 Memphis (2008) – If there was a better team not to win the title than Illinois, then it was Memphis. Mario Chalmers huge shot sent the game to overtime where Kansas prevailed.

It’s much too difficult to predict a potential classic game. So many variables need to be factored into that. That’s something even I can’t handle.

Gus Johnson
We often talk about how one man can carry a team to a victory in the NCAA tournament. We’ve seen it before with Carmelo Anthony and Stephen Curry are examples from the past, and this year we could easily see Evan Turner, Greg Monroe, Jimmer Fredette, or John Wall single handedly lead their team to a victory. But there is one man who single handedly takes over the tournament every year. That man is Gus Johnson. The calls of Gus Johnson are what take games from legendary to immortal. The excitement that Gus Johnson brings to the announce table is un-parallel. His voice cracks, he yells, he laughs sadistically, and makes sounds that we aren’t sure are human. But whatever it is that he does, he gets us stoked to watch college basketball. Why he doesn’t announce the final four I’m not quite sure, but I’m considering writing a letter to CBS telling them to get him in Indianapolis this year. 2 years ago when Mario Chalmers hit the shot to send the championship game to overtime, we heard a moderately excited Jim Nantz make the call. Gus Johnson would have gave us the greatest call in sports history, and possibly made this the greatest NCAA tournament game in history. He also may have screamed so loud that he put himself in the hospital. To put it simply, Gus Johnson puts the “Madness” in March Madness. To my delight, he will be calling the games I will be at in Buffalo. I will do anything to meet him. For those of you who aren't very familiar with Gus Johnson, go to You Tube and search his name. He is an internet sensation and rightfully so.

The Predictions
This is what it’s about. This is why March Madness sweeps the nation. Everyone fills out the bracket, they all have their own strategy to pick the games. Its been said a million times that your grandmother who knows nothing about college basketball has just as good of a chance to pick a winning bracket as you do. Well, I’m gonna give it a shot now. Every year I aspire to pick a perfect bracket, and it usually doesn’t last through the first set of games. I always convince myself it can happen though, and it never will. But what the hell, I’ve convinced myself again, so here are my bracket predictions.

Midwest Region
First Round- 1 Kansas over 16 Lehigh, 9 Northern Iowa over 8 UNLV, 5 Michigan St. over 12 New Mexico St., 4 Maryland over 13 Houston, 6 Tennessee over 11 San Diego St., 3 Georgetown over 14 Ohio, 7 Oklahoma St. over 10 Georgia Tech, 2 Ohio St. over 15 UCSB
Second Round- 1 Kansas over 9 Northern Iowa (But closer than the experts think), 5 Michigan St. over 4 Maryland, 3 Georgetown over 6 Tennessee, 2 Ohio St. over 7 Oklahoma St.
Sweet 16- 1 Kansas over 5 Michigan St./2 Ohio St. over 3 Georgetown
Elite 8- 1 Kansas over 2 Ohio St.

West Region
First Round- 1 Syracuse over 16 Vermont (my prediction for closest 1 vs. 16 game of the year), 8 Gonzaga over 9 Florida St., 5 Butler over 12 UTEP, 4 Vanderbilt over 13 Murray St., 6 Xavier over 11 Minnesota, 14 Oakland over 3 Pittsburgh (you heard it here first), 7 BYU over 10 Florida, 2 Kansas St. over 15 North Texas
Second Round- 1 Syracuse over 8 Gonzaga, 5 Butler over 4 Vanderbilt, 6 Xavier over 14 Oakland, 2 Kansas St. over 7 BYU
Sweet 16- 1 Syracuse over 5 Butler/2 Kansas St. over 6 Xavier
Elite 8- 1 Syracuse over 2 Kansas St.

East Region
First Round- 1 Kentucky over 16 ETSU, 8 Texas over 9 Wake Forest, 12 Cornell over 5 Temple, 4 Wisconsin over 13 Wofford, 6 Marquette over 11 Washington, 3 New Mexico over 14 Montana, 10 Missouri over 7 Clemson, 2 West Virginia over 15 Morgan St.
Second Round- 1 Kentucky over 8 Texas, 12 Cornell over 4 Wisconsin, 3 New Mexico over 6 Marquette, 2 West Virginia over 10 Missouri
Sweet 16- 1 Kentucky over 12 Cornell/2 West Virginia over 3 New Mexico
Elite 8- 1 Kentucky over 2 West Virginia

South Region
First Round- 1 Duke over 16 Winthrop/Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 9 Louisville over 8 California, 5 Texas A&M over 12 Utah St., 13 Siena over 4 Purdue, 6 Notre Dame over 11 Old Dominion, 3 Baylor over 14 Sam Houston St., 7 Richmond over 10 St. Mary’s, 2 Villanova over 15 Robert Morris
Second Round- 1 Duke over 9 Louisville, 5 Texas A&M over 13 Siena, 3 Baylor over 6 Notre Dame, 2 Villanova over 7 Richmond
Sweet 16- 5 Texas A&M over 1 Duke/2 Villanova over 3 Baylor
Elite 8- 2 Villanova over 5 Texas A&M

Final Four
1 Kansas over 1 Syracuse/1 Kentucky over 2 Villanova

National Championship
1 Kansas over 1 Kentucky

Frankly, I am having a difficult time accepting these picks. I feel like I shouldn’t have gone with so much chalk, but I didn’t have the guts to go a different route. So this is how it will be, Experience vs. Youth in the final, with Rock Chalk Jayhawk cutting down the nets.

This is why March Madness is so great. The unpredictability, the excitement, Gus Johnson! Every March basketball fans are totally consumed by this phenomenal event, and the same goes for this year.