10 Things We Love About The NCAA Tourney

There are a million things to like about the NCAA tournament, from the

pageantry (and heartache) of Selection Sunday to the misty-eyed viewings

of One Shining Moment after a national champion has been crowned.

But when it comes to things we love about The Big Dance, we’re happy to explore the following obsession points a little deeper.

10 Things We Love About The NCAA Tournament

1. We love … the genius behind the “pod” system

For

the 2001 NCAA Tournament, top-four seeds like UCLA (Greensboro, N.C.),

Indiana (San Diego) and Maryland (Boise) had to travel great distances

for first- and second-round games, diminishing the schools’ chances of

attracting a large contingent of pro-Bruins/Hoosiers/Terrapins fans to

the early venues.

And going back to 1982, top-seeded Georgetown

had to trek all the way to Logan, Utah (Utah State campus) … just to

play a single second-round game against nearby Wyoming (the No. 1s had

first-round byes back then).

Why it took so long for the NCAA

selection committee to approve the pod system — where tourney teams are

generally assigned to regionals which minimize travel, and top-four

seeds are placed within earshot of their home bases — shall remain a

mystery here, but thank goodness the plan was enacted in 2002.

Although,

for that season, the pod system took a temporary hit when No. 3

Mississippi State essentially had to play (and eventually lose) a road

tilt to 6-seeded Texas in nearby Dallas (Midwest Region). But occasional

quirks aside, the amount of travel — and fairness to the higher-seeded

clubs — has greatly improved in recent years.

Simply put, the

days of a 2-seed like UCLA (1997) schlepping it to snowy Auburn Hills,

Mich. (I was a media intern that weekend), just for the honor of beating

Charleston Southern and Xavier in the opening two rounds, are long

gone.

2. We love … taking the “First Four” games in Dayton seriously

Some

might forget that Virginia Commonwealth’s improbable run to the Final

Four in 2011 started with a 59-46 victory over USC in the “First Four”

round — where eight teams vie for four spots in the 64-team NCAA field,

through a two-pack of Tuesday/Wednesday games in Dayton, Ohio.

In

essence, First Four naysayers never got a chance to mock the system,

since its inception coincided with VCU’s rise to Final Four glory.

Like

it or not, America, the First Four has credibility, so much that

President Barack Obama took time out of his busy schedule last year to

view the Tuesday doubleheader (Western Kentucky-Mississippi Valley State

and BYU-Iona), while introducing the finer points of basketball to

Great Britain Prime Minister David Cameron.

Sure, it might have

been a thinly veiled campaign trip to Ohio — the country’s hottest

“battleground” state — but it stands to reason:

Would the

president have swooped in to Dayton for the First Four in 2012 … if

VCU hadn’t made the mini-tourney hip the previous season? After all,

POTUS does have a high-profile tourney bracket to protect every March.

3. We love … poking fun at Multiple Bracket Guy

For

those with email and/or Web access, you’ll undoubtedly be granted the

opportunity to fill out a tourney bracket before the Round of 64 begins

Thursday. As part of that, you’ll surely encounter a guy (or gal) who

feels obligated to fill out multiple bracket sheets, with various

scenarios playing out with the Elite Eight, Final Four and title-game

contenders.

From a monetary or bravado standpoint, Multiple

Bracket Guy (or Gal) is simply adding to the overall pool of winnings by

harmlessly touting multiple brackets. They may also be hedging their

bets for pick ’em games, as a short-term means of impressing friends,

co-workers or significant others with their supposed tourney knowledge.

That

aside, feel free to mock the following type of Multiple Bracket Guy (or

Gal) — the one who wastes time, energy and money sweating out the

results of the 8-9 and 7-10 matchups from opening weekend.

The

rationale: If you have the No. 1 and 2 seeds advancing to the Sweet 16,

without incident, what’s the point of playing both sides of the 8-9 and

7-10 arguments in each region? Minus any seismic upsets early on, you’d

only be lamenting the potential loss of a bracket point or two with the

previous round.

Let’s think about the big picture here: Winning a

bracket pool (and the money that usually flows with it) entails getting

at least 13 of the Sweet 16 teams and three of the Final Four clubs

correct. It also involves getting one of the title-game finalists right,

especially when a 3-seed or lower claims the title.

Just don’t

expect a 7-, 8-, 9- or 10-seed to bring home the championship. We’re a

long way from 1985 (Villanova over Georgetown).

4. We love … making celebrities of previously unsung heroes during tourney time

James Forrest. Bryce Drew. U.S. Reed. Ty Rogers. Jermaine Wallace.

The

above quintet were hardly household names during their collegiate days,

but became cult figures — for a brief period, at least — after hitting

iconic buzzer-beaters in the NCAA tournament. Without their memorable

contributions to The Big Dance, the aura and intrigue behind the event,

collectively, wouldn’t be so grand.

Now comes the hard part — ranking the buzzer-beaters amongst Reed (Arkansas, 1981), Drew (Valparaiso, 1998), Wallace (Northwestern State, 2006), Forrest (Georgia Tech, 2002) and Rogers (Western Kentucky, 2008).

5. We love … that one region will be torn asunder by a wave of upsets

It

never fails. Despite a phalanx of powerhouse or name-brand programs

occupying a particular region, there’s always one bracket (or

sub-bracket) that gets demolished by a lower-seed uprising.

In

2012, four double-digit seeds advanced to the South region’s Round of 32

— highlighted by No. 15 Lehigh’s stunning win over No. 2 Duke (in

nearby Greensboro).

The previous year (2011), three double-digit

seeds (Florida State, VCU and Richmond) reached the Sweet 16 in the

Southwest region, along with No. 1 Kansas (which fell to VCU in the

regional final).

And in 2010, thanks to a litany of early-round

upsets, a No. 5 seed (Michigan State) and No. 6 (Tennessee) squared off

in the Midwest final (the Spartans prevailed, 70-69).

Consider

this to be a small sample size of a pervasive trend, where the

basketball gods seemingly enjoy bringing havoc to one concentrated area

of the tournament field. But it’s still worth noting:

The odds

of a 12- and 13-seed meeting in the same region — after knocking off the

4 and 5s, respectively — are far greater than all four No. 1 seeds

reaching the Final Four (only one such occurrence since the tourney

expanded to 64 — 2008).

6. We love … the romance — and consistency — of the 12-over-5 upset

Of

the last 20 tourneys (1993-2012), the No. 12 seed has upended the

5-seed 30 times (out of 120 opportunities), meaning there’s a 25-percent

chance of at least one 12-5 shakedown every year.

In that span,

the 5 seeds have carried the freight in all four regions only twice

(2000, 2007). On the flip side, the 12s took three of the four battles

twice (2002, 2009).

So, when filling out a sheet this week,

you’ll need at least one bracket buster at the 5-12 spot, no matter how

infallible — or downtrodden — the respective teams may seem on paper.

7. We love … how tournament viewers want their cake and eat it, too

Remember the delirium that accompanied Northern Iowa’s Round of 32 upset of No. 1 Kansas in 2010, thanks to one of the gutsiest wide-open three-pointers you’ll ever see during crunch time — courtesy of UNI’s Ali Farokhmanesh?

Well,

that shocking result might have captivated a nation for one Saturday in

March, but it also cast a strange pall over the rest of the Midwest

region from that point forward. The same TV viewers — and ticket-buyers

for the Sweet 16/Elite Eight rounds in St. Louis — who celebrated

Farokhmanesh’s heroics against the Jayhawks were complaining about the

lack of buzz surrounding Northern Iowa’s ensuing matchup with Michigan

State.

It’s an all-too-familiar every March: Tournament fans live

for upsets in the early rounds, but once they’ve realized that most

Cinderella teams are one-trick ponies, they’ll soon be clamoring for the

“chalk” matchups (between prominent clubs) that never happened.

The

best-case scenario for these fans? In 1995, defending champion Arkansas

barely survived their 2-15 matchup against Texas Southern in the first

round, and then squeaked out an overtime win over Syracuse (remember

Lawrence Moten?) two days later.

The following week, the Hogs

had gathered enough steam to forge an exhilarating run to the NCAA title

game (losing to UCLA in the finale). That is but one perfect example of

The Big Dance experiencing the best of both worlds.

8. We love … feigning surprise when Dereck Whittenburg’s 28-foot heave falls short of the rim

This

spring marks the 30-year anniversary of North Carolina State’s shocking

victory over Houston (aka Phi Slamma Jamma) in the 1983 national title

game, a moment that will forever be punctuated by Lorenzo Charles’ dunk

off Whittenburg’s desperation airball before the buzzer … and coach

Jim Valvano charmingly running around the court, in search of someone to

hug.

Leading into the title match at The Pit in Albuquerque, Houston-N.C. State was actually viewed as anti-climactic, with the real championship game taking place two days earlier (Houston topped Louisville, 94-81, in an up-tempo, dunk-filled battle for the ages).

Feeling

no pressure, the Wolfpack sprinted to a 33-25 halftime lead over the

Cougars (led by Clyde Drexler and Akeem Abdul Olajuwon, before he added

an “H” to his first name) and then endured every second-half Houston

rally before arriving to the closing minute with the ball … and the game tied at 52.

In

this pre-shot-clock era, N.C. State held the ball for one final shot,

but that plan went awry when the Wolfpack stalled too long and

Whittenburg was forced to take an off-balance, 28-foot jumper. For his

sake, the shot was short and to the right, enabling Charles to cleanly

grab and dunk the ball before the buzzer, with Olajuwon standing by,

seemingly in shock.

For that Final Four’s 30-year tribute, you’ll certainly see this amazing finish roughly 687 times over the next three weeks. But it never gets old.

9. We love … the coolness of Quadruple-header Saturday during the Round of 32

CBS,

Turner, TBS and truTV each have a hand in airing tourney games now, but

the NCAA has admirably preserved the four-block marathon that comes

with the first Saturday.

For couch potatoes and bar patrons

everywhere, there’s no sweeter sight than having access to non-stop,

high-quality hoops from 12 noon (EST) to 11 p.m. — without the

obligation of sitting through a 1-vs.-16 matchup, with no alternative

viewing choices.

Which brings us to this …

10. We love … the never-ending chase of a No. 16 toppling a 1-seed

In

1985, the first year of an expanded 64-team field (forcing the eventual

champion to win six tourney games), top-seeded Michigan trailed No. 16

Fairleigh Dickinson by 10 points midway through the second half —

without a shot clock — before rallying for a four-point victory.

After

watching FDU’s near-miss that Friday evening in Dayton, it seemed

inevitable that a No. 1 would fall in the Round of 64 sometime that

century … and sooner than later.

Twenty-eight years later,

though, the NCAA tournament appears no closer to unprecedented history

with its 1-16 matchup. Sure, top dogs like Duke (1986 vs. Mississippi

Valley State), Georgetown (1989 vs. Princeton), Oklahoma (1989 vs. East

Tennessee State), Michigan State (1990 vs. Murray State), Purdue (1996

vs. Western Carolina) and Kansas (2002 vs. Holy Cross) all encountered

legitimate scares, but only one of the six powers required overtime to

win (MSU in ’90).

In fact, of the last five tournaments

(2008-12), spanning 20 matchups of 1 vs. 16, the average margin of

victory is a whopping 26.5 points. That’s likely a consequence of three

factors:

**In this technologically advanced era, the NCAA

selection committee has a better grasp of accurately seeding the four

worst teams.

**The No. 1 seeds have better scouting access to the 16s, via TV and the Internet.

**Through social media, the No. 1 seeds feel even more obligated to take their early-round opponents seriously. No powerhouse wants to make history, in a bad way.

Bottom

line: In this parity-driven era of college hoops, where it’s

commonplace for mid-majors to reach the Final Four (and title game), the

16s have somehow missed their window for pulling off the mother of all

upsets.

How else could one explain the 28-year drought, especially since NASA needed only eight years to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration promise (circa 1961) of putting a man on the moon?