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ISSUE 118 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/18/2005

Spring madness

By Pat Bottini
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 18, 2005

Spring is the season of love.

As predictable as the changing leaves, these few months of romance and rebirth are forever accentuated by pairs of starry-eyed lovers carousing about the newly green countryside. However, in case your affectionate advances or playful panderings are ill-received this year, may I introduce you to a new lover: March Madness. The Madness is an accommodating mistress, who will return your flirtatious advances with more excitement than you can imagine in your most decadent and uninhibited dreams.

I am speaking, of course, about the men’s Division I NCAA basketball tournament. This grandiose culmination of collegiate athletics marks the pinnacle of four long months of competition for players and fans alike. Taking place each year in the second half of March, it has earned the aforementioned title of March Madness. It is an event universally praised and patronized by both college hoops enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike. It is different than the NBA, and it may be different than anything else you’ve ever seen.

The Madness consists of 65 teams – the best collegiate basketball players in the world pitted against one another in a winner-takes-all, no-holds-barred, single-elimination tournament. There is no consolation for the losers and no big checks or shoe endorsements for the victors (at least, there aren’t supposed to be).

For many players, these games will be the last they ever play in their illustrious careers. They must win to survive. This is why, over the next three weeks, you will not see a player take a play off, you will not see a selfish technical foul and you will not see even a minor skirmish go unpunished. You will see players diving for loose balls, running to the point of exhaustion and playing the best defense in all of basketball.

You will see close games and winning shots, Cinderella stories, tears from the losers and even tears from the winners. Most importantly, you will get a glimpse of what the game of basketball was meant to be.

This year’s tournament is set to be as electrifying as its predecessors. In analyzing the possible contenders, one must look no further than the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). The ACC is home to four national contenders: Duke, North Carolina (UNC), Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.

The Blue Devils, led by junior guard J.J. Redick (22.5 points per game), are one of the four number one-seeds in the tournament, as are the Tar Heels of UNC. If they play their cards (or basketballs) right, these two teams could face each other in the tournament semifinals, otherwise known as the Final Four. What makes this proposition exciting is that these two schools are a mere 20-minute drive apart and share a rivalry that puts St. Olaf and Carleton to shame.

Add to this the fact that only a late season slide kept Wake Forest from also gaining a coveted number one slot, and it becomes readily apparent that the ACC is the conference to watch this March.

The other two top seeds are Illinois and Washington. Illinois is the top-ranked team in the country and would have entered the tournament an unbeaten 33-0 had it not been for a late-season loss to Ohio State. Led by Big Ten Player of the Year Dee Brown (easily recognizable with his cornrows and headband), the Fighting Illini are the odds-on favorites to win the tournament.

Of course, all this means nothing to the Kentucky Wildcats. The ‘Cats were a number-one seed last year, but suffered a dramatic upset at the hands of the unknown University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers.

Such is the appeal of the Madness. Behemoths like Kentucky are routinely exposed, sometimes with bitter efficiency, by small schools with big hearts and hot outside shooters. In the spirit of the Madness, even the lowly Kansas City Royals can beat the Yankees, the last-place 49ers can beat the Super-Bowl-champion Patriots and the Atlanta Hawks can beat, well, someone.

And you’d better believe that somewhere, lurking among the field of 65, a sleeper awaits to topple the mighty. The overachieving Eagles of Boston College may pose a threat from the fourth seed. BC started the season with 20 straight wins and, with an incredible defense, should be an interesting team to watch as the tournament progresses.

In the Albuquerque bracket, there are four strong teams above the second seed with legitimate prospects for the final four. Gonzaga, Louisville, Georgia Tech and Texas Tech (ranked third, fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively) will make Albuquerque the most hotly-contested region of 2005.

We have come to it at last: three weeks, 65 teams and a clean slate. Same chance for victory, same chance for defeat. Regardless of who you’re courting is this spring, whether you’re bundled up in front of the TV or taking him or her to the big dance – when the scoring starts, here’s hoping you find the true meaning of love.

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