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ISSUE 117 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/19/2004

Descent into Madness

By Ken Foote
Sports Editor

Friday, March 19, 2004

It is that time of year again. A time when office production comes to a standstill, people suddenly need their sick days to combat the 48-hour flu or to visit their grandmother in the hospital.

Truth is, granny is fine and so are you. As a matter of fact, granny is the defending champion in your pool and you are beginning to regret buying her the ESPN Full Court programming package for Christmas. I mean, who knew grandma was as automatic as a J.J. Redick free throw?

If you have not figured out what this longwinded introduction has alluded to by now, you have either been living in a cave or have the same IQ as Jessica Simpson. March means only one thing: It is time for the Madness.

Not since third grade math has dividing by two been so much fun. 64 teams become 32 after a full slate of Thursday and Friday games. Those 32 are transformed into an ever so Sweet 16 over the weekend before slowing down and cutting the number of survivors to a group containing the Elite Eight.

The octet do battle until only a Final Four remain. Four must become two, and then the Highlander rule comes into effect; there can be only one.

In the world of college basketball only one team survives the three-week, 63-game gauntlet and cuts down the nets. Only one team is immortalized and forever etched in NCAA lore.

Nearly as thrilling as the Big Dance itself, the conference championships tournaments produced countless great moments last week.

Maryland came from behind to shock the heavily favored Duke Blue Devils and spoil their attempt at a sixth straight ACC tournament championship. Emeka Okafor carried UConn on his injured back over Pitt in the Big East tournament and Xavier throttled number one St. Joes, ending their run at a perfect season. Conversely, Stanford avenged their only loss of the season by defeating a fiery Washington team in the Pac 10 title game.

Despite those great moments, the conference championship tournaments cannot compare to the year-end tournament. Aside from the obvious fact that the NCAA tournament determines the national champion, last weeks tourneys are only around to determine who goes to the Big Dance and what seed they will get. It is like comparing an appetizer to an entree; it will never measure up -- there is a reason it is not the main course.

Simply put, March Madness is basketball nirvana. No seven game series, no home-court advantage (unless you are Wisconsin) and no room for error. The rules are simple; win and you stay in, lose and you go home.

A stud like Carmelo Anthony can carry a team to a national championship or a cast of gritty nobodies, like the 1983 NC State team that upset the Phi Slamma Jamma Houston team featuring Clyde Drexler and Akeem no H Olajuwon, can band together and topple a group of heavily favored, future NBA lottery picks.

That is the essence of March Madness. Anything can happen at anytime. One bad night or a Cinderella team refusing to leave the ball until the clock strikes midnight can leave a team searching for answers rather than searching for their place in history.

A teams run can end with a Bryce Drew buzzer beater or a Chris Webber timeout. All those regular season wins, out the window. All those gut wrenching losses, not important anymore. All that matters is the 40 minutes of basketball that night and the final score after the final tick of the clock.

Most people will end up tearing up their brackets by the end of the weekend, cursing some mid-major David for slaying Goliath and some big conference behemoth for chocking away a shot at the national title. Many of us will rue the day they ever tried to pick how the Madness would turn out and wonder why we will be eagerly waiting for more next year.

Why do we do it? The inscription on Matthew Webbs, the first man to swim the English Channel, epitaph says it all: Nothing great is ever easy. No one would be interested in who won the national championship if it were easily accomplished and no fan would spend hours filling out an office pool if the picks were as easy as a Jim Harrick final exam.

Whereas Caesar should have feared the Ides of March, we only fear that it will not end soon enough, that it will delay our date with the Madness.

Luckily, the Ides of March are only 24 hours long, just like every other day, except the day when we fall back. We will soon enough be blessed with the all-encompassing glory of the Big Dance by the weeks end.

Father Time will make sure March 18 arrives; all that is left for us to do is sit back and enjoy the Madness.

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