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ISSUE 119 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/10/2006

Inside the Lines: Tourney time beckons

By Matt Tiano
Sports Editor

Friday, March 10, 2006

Four months have passed since I exclaimed, “'March, Here We Come”' in this space back in November, referring to the journey, the passion and the excitement that Division-I college basketball brings fans each year. As conference tournaments begin to culminate, we feel the anticipation brewing. Perhaps you yourself have exclaimed, “"March, here we are!”"

Officially, the Madness does not begin until the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, which airs Sunday evening. At that time, we will see mid-majors, the Winthrops, the Penns or the Davidsons, jumping for joy celebrating their at-large bids, even while knowing their odds of winning even a single game in the Big Dance are extremely unlikely.

Although we will not know for sure the NCAA bracket until the Tournament Selection Show, there are some teams that currently find themselves on the bubble that perennially enjoy quality seeds. The Maryland Terrapins are typically a team that makes a run every year under Gary Williams, but it appears as though the Terrapins’ bubble has burst. With only an 8-8 record in conference play, it appears as though Maryland will need to win at least two in a tough ACC tournament to even have a chance.

Another team that has underachieved all season has been the Syracuse Orangemen out of the Big East. Melancholy has filled the air at the Carrier Dome as sharpshooter Gerry McNamara will leave the Orangemen playing in the NIT unless his team can find a way to win four games in four days in the best conference in basketball, the Big East.

The biggest disappointment has to be the Louisville Cardinals. Rick Pitino’'s squad was off to a 15-1 start, including an impressive win over Villanova. The Cardinals even crept into the top five in the country, but a tumultuous turn in Big East play has left Pitino scratching his head and searching for answers.

This year’'s set of projected number one seeds tends to be very deep and extremely talented. Connecticut has locked up a top seed under Jim Calhoun. The Huskies boast quality wins over Gonzaga, Arizona, Pittsburgh, as well as Villanova, who is also likely to pick up a number-one seed at 27-3.

The Blue Devils of Duke should receive a top spot, although they have lost two in a row, one to bubble team Florida State, and the other to NIT-bound Maryland. Fourth is 27-3 Memphis, whose number-one fate could be determined if they falter in the Conference USA Tournament. Either Ohio State or Texas has a shot of passing the Tigers if they perform well in their respective tournaments.

The most fascinating part of the tournament is the unpredictability. We as fans feel the same anxiety that a number one seed feels when it faces a lesser team. Last year, mid-major and 12th-seeded UW-Milwaukee made an impressive run into the Sweet 16, knocking off fifth-seeded Alabama and fourth-seeded Boston College. Also, a Kevin Pittsnogle-led West Virginia team made it all the way to the Elite Eight, acquiring impressive wins over Creighton, Texas Tech and powerhouse Wake Forest.

When filling out your bracket, pay attention to the sleepers that appear to have a legitimate resume. Do they have quality wins? A proven coaching staff? Keep in mind that there have only been three times where three of the top four seeds made the Final Four 1993, 1997 and 1999. Although number one seeds are favorites, they are still the underdogs in terms of making it to the final weekend. That said, here is my short list of potential Sweet 16 surprises: UCLA, Marquette, UAB, Southern Illinois and UW-Milwaukee.

However, when April 1 rolls around and four teams have survived, I like Connecticut, UCLA, Texas and Ohio State to remain standing. On April 3, on the evening of the National Championship game, my crystal ball says the Huskies will be too much for the Buckeyes.

And as always, this year'’s tournament will be filled with buzzer beaters, shockers, and of course, “shining moments,” from the first tip March 14 to the final buzzer April 4.

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