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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Confessions of a Basketball Junkie

As I watched Notre Dame survive through five overtimes to beat Louisville last Saturday, I had this overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Here I was pulling for Louisville, knowing full well that the Irish were going to win the game. It was destiny. I’ve seen it before. It’s a well-ordained script. Not just the luck of the Irish, but also perhaps some divine intervention. At least, the Catholics believe.

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Spiritual awakenings are common in basketball at all levels, but at the college level it borders on the epiphany, where the devoted and frenzied fans drive it up a notch. Note the sign from the Georgetown faithful in the photo above. Earlier this year, Villanova channeled higher power to knock off top-rated teams Louisville and Syracuse in succession, even though they’ve struggled through the year, losing 10 so far.

I confess I draw my basketball compulsion from Catholic school. We only had one sport at little Holy Name of Jesus, the one we played in the gym/convocation center. We played on our lunch break and after school, and I followed the team religiously by bus all over western Kentucky, as a back-seat busser and aspiring sports writer. I was writing basketball game stories for the local paper when I was in high school, so I felt like a player.

Our little Catholic school would compete far above its enrollment or weight class. Boys would live in the gym, firing up shots from all over. There were no 3-point shots back then, but the long jump shooters were the heroes. We might not be able to mix it up underneath with all the big boys, but we could shoot over them, with amazing regularity.

That is what makes basketball such a great sport, the truly beautiful game. You don’t need to be the biggest and baddest, you just have to be the smartest, with the best-practiced skills. And above all, you have to play together. There’s no “me” in basketball, at least not at the winning level. Even Michael Jordan needed his Scottie Pippin and Steve Kerr. He couldn’t go it alone.

That’s what I was thinking, back in 1983, when I recruited a couple of Hollywood, Fla., cops to fill out our three-on-three city league roster. I was the player-coach, and we were definitely challenged talent-wise, with a couple of shooters and one ball-handler, not much else. I took advantage of the opportunity to draft two African-American players – one 6-7 mobile big man and a quick, agile guard who handled and could shoot.

We were three young editors/writers at the local Sun-Tatler, medium-sized guys with medium to slow speeds, so the infusion of talent may have rocked the boat a bit. My good friend Alan didn’t like it, and he told me so, but I really wanted to run and play at a higher level. And we did win more games than we would have otherwise.

There is nothing to compare with the feeling that you share, when you’re in motion, got a hard-driving notion, just running with the glides. I wrote that to my brother David and he turned it into a song, not exactly knowing what I had in mind. Later he says, I thought you were talking about racing cars in high school, and hanging out with the cool guys. It became a mixed metaphor:

We’re not likely to see this song picked up by CBS to serve as background for the NCAA tournament, but it still revs me up, makes me want to run and (if I could only jump) dunk. That three-on-three format also served as a lesson for me later as a coach for my youngest daughters, from ages 8 through 17.  You have to run, beat the other team down the court. At tryouts I would always look for girls with the best ball-handling skills, who could keep their heads up as they raced down the floor with the ball. (Yes, they also tended to be soccer players.)

I probably over-coached and under-fathered in that situation, but I would get excited. I pushed the girls to beat the other team to the basket, ideally off steals. I taught the girls how to trap the ball and force bad shots, drawing on Kentucky’s successful 1-3-1 half-court zone press of the Joe B. Hall era. The idea was to take advantage of our speedy transition game. We managed to compete in every game enough girls showed up, winning the championship once.

Sticky defense, good passing, fast break: That’s what I look for in a good basketball team, and why I think Indiana is poised to win the NCAA tournament in March, barring one of those five-overtime spiritual haymakers. Cody Zeller and Victor Olidipo are great players, and the Hoosiers also have good ball-handlers who defend, rebound and quickly push the ball down the court. They lead the nation in offense, but their offense is predicated on their defense.

Duke, Gonzaga, Florida and Arizona can stake their claims, but the best teams are in the Big 10 this year – Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, all with a legitimate chance to make noise in the tournament. We could see at least two Big 10 teams in the Final Four for the seventh time in history, most recently in 2005.

But nothing is assured in college basketball, so don’t take my well-informed judgment to the bank. In particular, beware the little Catholic schools with the big crosses on their shoulders and no conscience with their shots. Besides Gonzaga, Georgetown, Marquette and Notre Dame are contenders, as are Creighton, Temple and Xavier. Anything can happen. But expect entertainment, excitement and a few miracles along the way.