Five stories to follow, plus one thing you won't see
Forget that "First Four" play-in game nonsense. Everyone knows the real first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament comes today. At high noon on the Ides of March we tip-off the World's Most Exciting Sporting Event. Keep your Super Bowl, with its 1,000:1 hype-to-football ratio. Take your World Cup, with its round-robins and nil-nil ties. The NBA Finals, World Series, and Stanley Cup? Even at their best, the championships can only offer two clubs playing a lousy seven games. The Big Dance, though, has 68 teams, with nearly 700 players, plus marching bands, cheerleaders, and thousands of face-painted fans packing venues across the country. For sheer volume of entertainment, nothing compares to March Madness. Today is especially fun, too, because that fussed-over bracket is still immaculate. The elusive dream of perfection still remains. If you are like most of us, though, your bracket will be a shambles by tonight. In that case, we've got a few other stories to watch.
Forget Kentucky's Player of the Year candidate, star-kissed forward Anthony Davis. The real story in Wildcat-land is head coach John Calipari's lifelong, multi-school, twice-asterisked quest to win a title. Calipari's offense, "dribble-drive motion," is based on constant cutting and passing, and puts control of the game in players' hands, NBA-style. Unlike, oh, pretty much every other coach in the college ranks, Calapari won't call time-outs late in close games to draw up a play for his club. He'll trust the players to be good enough to win. The problem, as ESPN The Magazine's Elena Bergeron pointed out, is that they haven't been. At UMass, Memphis, and Kentucky, Calipari's clubs have show a late-game tendency to, shall we say, be in need of the Heimlich. For this year's no. 1 overall seed, so deep and talented, who've clearly the country's best team all year, anything less than cutting down the nets in New Orleans has got to be considered a flop.
Ye Olde 12-5 Match-Ups
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, games between the fifth- and twelfth-seeds have become legendary for upsets. Why? Maybe because the lower slots tend to go to smaller schools with unknown but rising programs. Maybe because the players at low-seeded clubs get insulted and fired up. At this point, you have to figure the 12-5 Upset Syndrome has become at least partially self-perpetuating, by making guys on fifth-seeded teams nervous.
Whatever the cause, this year's crop of games is predictably unpredictable. Given last year's fabulous tourney run, there's a sense that VCU got a raw deal with their 12 seed against Wichita State. Even President Obama, who tends towards chalk, took the Rams over the Shockers. Fifth-seed Vanderbilt, "the Harvard of the South," must play the actual Harvard. Irony! With the Ivy Leaguers getting their first tournament berth since 1946, plus the NBA success of Crimson alum Jeremy Lin, Tommy Amaker's team will be pumped. But if you really love a Cinderella, forget the 12's and go Lucky 13. Watch Davidson run-and-gun in a West Regional meeting with Louisville at 1:40 p.m. Today. 13th-seeded Davidson played tough against Duke, almost beat Vanderbilt, and did beat Kansas. That's, like, hard.
The Trials of Thomas Robinson
On the subject of Jayhawkers, KU's Player of the Year candidate has persevered through more pain than anyone—let alone a college kid—should have to face.
At the start of last season, Robinson lost his grandmother, grandfather, and mother in the span of about three weeks, leaving him and little sister alone on the world. Despite the hardship, he had a dazzling season this year, and it became clear Robinson would leave KU early. During Senior Night at Allen Field House, T-Rob was let on the floor, but not to speak. KU's coach Bill Self kidded to the crowd that Robinson could talk "if he'd stick around for another year." The faithful cheered, but no fan - no matter how in love with the idea of four-year players—would begrudge Robinson's choice to leave school early, and it will be a bittersweet farewell even if the bullish forward can carry his team all the way to New Orleans.
Jim Calhoun's Huskies
With UConn's longtime coach out for back surgery the last two months of the regular season, the defending National Champions were a disaster. The Huskies lost nine of 12 games. Since their cantankerous leader's return, however, Connecticut has allowed about ten fewer points per game, and they looked ferocious crushing Marshall in the Conference USA Tournament final game. If UConn could somehow repeat, starting with a win against Iowa State, the ninth-seeded Huskies would become the lowest ranked club ever to win a title.
The Tarnished Golden State
Does anybody remember when the west coast had good basketball? Neither do we.
The knock on players from California is that they're soft. We won' t even get to find out this year. The entire state, with 37 million people and year-round sunshine, managed to get all of three teams in the dance—and none of them from a "major" conference. The Pac 12 is just heinous. Washington is the first school since 1939 to win a big conference title and not get an NCAA tourney invite for it, and Cal's Golden Bears got creamed Wednesday night. Repping Golden State hoops that leaves—brace yourself—San Diego State and Long Beach State (one of those dangerous 12-seeds) along with 7th-seeded (you read that right) St. Mary's, who'll meet Purdue on Friday night in Omaha.
That sound you hear? John Wooden spinning ion his grave.
Finally, One Thing to Miss
The 2012 tournament marks the end of an era. A very loud, very enthusiastic era. Sadly, the world's most excitable human being won't be calling games this year. Last May, broadcaster Gus Johnson got an offer from Fox Sports. CBS didn't match it. So, for the first time in 15 years, fans won't get to hear calls like this. Johnson had said he wouldn't watch the tourney—that it would be too painful. But recently told the New York Daily News that he had a change of heart, saying "This is going to be the first year I'm going to be able to sit down with my son and watch the tournament together."
Johnson's kid might need earplugs, but he's still in for a treat—one the rest of us will miss for many a March to come.