A Fine Madness

March is roaring in but who cares if the weather is frightful? Inside gyms and arenas across the land, college basketball players are reaching for the brass hoop, and the crowds roar. It’s a beautiful thing, this March Madness. This year, it’s anyone’s game to win. Will Cinderella crash the party?

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Few college basketball seasons in recent memory have produced such a competitive field. Any one of a dozen teams could win it all, with the right breaks. This year more than many others, it may come down to the breaks. It will pay to know the players, and consider wild cards.

Some of the traditional powers don’t even make the field this year, including Georgetown and my beloved Indiana Hoosiers, who didn’t even deserve an invite to the consolation NIT after stumbling through the home stretch. Upstarts are legitimate: Wichita State is the first team to go undefeated through the regular season since UNLV in 1991, playing in Larry Bird’s old conference. Virginia got a No. 1 seed after winning the ACC for the first time since 1976.

Naturally, I’m tracking the event closely, as the inveterate basketball junkie, with a “virtual office pool” for friends and associates that is largely for bragging rights. Bracket mania sweeps the cubicles heading into Thursday’s opening games, and Yahoo and Quicken Loans are teaming for a $1 billion payoff (maybe, if you act fast, and tell about your finances and take loan pitches, etc.). Games are cropping up all over.

The Big Game is on the court, and I’ve been watching closely.  Front and center are the shooting stars, the one-and-done freshman phenoms who are positioning themselves for a top NBA draft slot. Jabari Parker (Duke), Julius Randle (Kentucky) and Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) are auditioning for the pros. Kentucky has at least three other freshman players who will turn pro after this tournament, and many others will come out.

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Will Tom Izzo lead the Spartans back to the Final Four?

While the traditionalists may mourn the passing of the old college spirit, the steady turnover of all-stars hasn’t hurt the game that much, thanks largely to the coaches. If you follow college basketball, you know the coach is the most important part of the game – a teacher and motivator as well as crafty tactician, and strategist. Nowadays, he also has to be restoration artist, building a new team every year.

Chances are good, once again, that Rick Pitino (Louisville), Tom Izzo (Michigan State) and Billy Donovan (Florida) will guide their teams into the Final Four, with five championships between them. The other guy could be Bo Ryan, the steady if unspectacular defensive guru at Wisconsin, who is due (and who may have the easiest road, through the West Region).

But others are worthy, and I’ll probably change my mind before the ball goes up on Thursday. The phenoms at Kentucky, Kansas and Duke could will their teams into Final Four. Three great coaches lead those teams – John Calipari, Bill Self and Mike Krzyzewski – with multiple championships among them.

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Does the Cinderella slipper fit Steve Alford and UCLA?

Cinderella, oddly, this year could take the form of the winningest NCAA tournament basketball program in history, UCLA, with 11 national championships. The Bruins are back after many lean years, beating No. 1 seed Arizona in the PAC-10 tournament. Guiding UCLA is first-year coach Steve Alford, the shooting guard for Indiana’s 1987 NCAA champions.

Also resembling Cinderella is Wichita State, which has a shot at being the first undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976.  (I just can’t stop saying Indiana! Indiana! Indiana!) Leading the Shockers is Gregg Marshall, a Roanoke, Va., native who coached little Winthrop University to a series of NCAA tourney appearances before leading Wichita State to the Promised Land. Hmmmm.

But the tournament poobahs appear to have stacked the deck against Wichita State, which will come out of the Midwest Region. Hurdles include Kentucky, Louisville, Duke and Michigan, coached by John Beilein, one of the smartest coaches around. Maybe it’s his turn to win a championship.

Grab those brackets and jump in a pool! It’s March and the water’s fine.

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Bracketology

If you’ve watched the NCAA basketball tournament matchups over the past several decades, you will have noticed that the committee has a good sense of geography and history as it makes selections that end up serving as our March bracketological puzzle. And maybe the committee has a good sense of humor, too.

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Consider Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed. Presumably the Cardinals are on solid geographical turf, as the No. 1 seed, opening in Lexington, 60 miles to the south, and then perhaps a second round in Indianapolis, 100 miles to the north. But those are perhaps the most inhospitable regional cities around, where fans of Kentucky and Indiana come to vilify Louisville, the outlier city.

And what of the mighty University of Kentucky Wildcats, the defending national champs? Disenfranchised. No bid to defend the title, given a paltry 21-11 record and disastrous losses, including losing their best player, Nerlins Noel, out for the season with a severe knee injury. In retrospect, it’s easy to second-guess Coach Calipari for playing the soft non-conference schedule.

Roy Williams, coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels could end up facing Kansas, the team he coached to many NCAA appearances, or perhaps UCLA, where three unhappy former Tar Heels migrated a few years ago. So many story lines, so little time!

Meanwhile, if the Cardinals get to Indianapolis, chances are they will face Duke, their future rival in the ACC, an improbable alignment beginning next year that combines Midwest teams Louisville, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame and upstate New York’s Syracuse into the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Anything can happen on the road to the Final Four, of course. Don’t count out Michigan State in the Midwest. The Spartans are defensive demons, strong inside and sometimes clutch. Some notable dark horses: Virginia Commonwealth, Florida Gulf Coast, Creighton, Montana.

The South is the strongest region, in my opinion, with Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan, Georgetown, Florida, UCLA, VCU and Minnesota. Any one of those teams could get to the Final Four, as they have in the past.

Big 10 teams are strong contenders for the Final Four. Indiana is a No. 1 seed, sitting pretty heading to Verizon Center in D.C. for the regional finals, maybe in a rematch with Butler or Illinois, but most likely a nail-biter against Jim Larranaga and the Miami Hurricanes.

It wouldn’t surprise me if either Ohio State or Wisconsin wins the West, although Gonzaga and New Mexico are worthy. Michigan could surprise Kansas or North Carolina, emerging from the South. Louisville, Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan.

Those would be my initial bets for a Final Four, sure to change tomorrow, once I’ve studied the teams a bit more. I’ve seen most of the contenders but confess I have no clue who will win between N.C. State and Temple, or Colorado State and Missouri. So many choices! “The Big Guessing Game,” my wife says. But she always picks the alma mater, Michigan State. And why not? The Spartans were the last Big 10 team to win the national championship, and that wasn’t the first time. A guy named Magic ruled the court when she went to school.

I myself am bound to Indiana by geography, history and emotion – the three seeds of human bias – so you will take my arguments with a grain of salt. But we all are bound to emotional attachments of one sort or another, so we share the best we can. Hoosiers do it better! I’ve seen it in the movies!

Let the games begin! Tell us what you think! How is this game going to go? Join the conversation on Facebook at Byrne’s Virtual Office Pool. If you’re coherent, you are invited to join other crack bracketologists at Byrne’s String Music, for the fine competition.

It’s a Fine Madness, March.