Ladies and gentlemen, start your pool party.
Nothing brings co-workers together like a good ol’ NCAA tournament bracket. In fact, aside from the Super Bowl’s magnetic pull on non-fans and folks with casual NFL interest, March Madness is the most-unifying force in American sports (sorry, World Cup).
The four-month regular season is like an exceedingly long drive to a resort banquet, where conference tournaments serve as the appetizer. Most of us haven’t watched one second of America East hoops, but we savored Albany punching its third consecutive ticket while denying Stony Brook its first ever trip to the NCAA tournament. An offensive rebound was tipped to the top of the key, where a 3-point heave secured the 51-50 win with 1.6 seconds remaining.
Those do-or-die games from one-bid conferences can be scrumptous. Though it doesn’t hold a tournament, the Ivy League got a taste this year via Harvard’s 53-51 victory in a one-game playoff against Yale.
But now our attention turns to the main course, a delectable buffet that annually ranges from chef’s surprise (upsets preceding the Sweet 16) to prime rib (high seeds reaching the Final Four).
As usual, the spread contains odd and exotic dishes such as Lafayette Leopards, North Florida Ospreys, Coastal Carolina Chanticleers and UC-Irvine Anteaters. Picking one of those to last past the first round might be fun, but it’s likely to leave you empty-handed.
(And don’t me started on the NCAA’s insistence that the “first round” begins Tuesday and the “second round” begins Thursday. You mean 64 teams have first-round byes? Please. It’s a bad joke. The only thing these unconvincing labels do is change historical references: Instead of saying Georgetown has suffered first-round losses in three of its four tourneys, we have to say the Hoyas lost in the Round of 64 – as if that obscures the reality.)
The most popular choices on the menu are written in chalk, never a bad choice. Of the last 30 champions, 22 were seeded No. 1 or No.2. Of the last eight champions, six were No.1 seeds.
This year’s tournament comes down to Kentucky vs. The Field. If you’re a Vegas wise guy, take the other 67 teams. But if you’re a regular Joe or Jane, you should be wild about the Wildcats.
Don’t out-smart yourself and make the process more complicated than necessary. Don’t buy-in on the notion an undefeated season is too difficult a proposition. Don’t believe the hype that the Wildcats are over-rated and under-coached.
“I have, in my opinion, the best team and the best players,” coach John Calipari told reporters Sunday after Kentucky earned the top overall seed. “That doesn’t mean you win. This isn’t best of five or best of seven. It’s one game. But, as long as we’re at our best, that’s the most we can ask of these kids.”
The tournament really comes down to Kentucky vs. the World, as seemingly all of mankind (outside of Lexington) roots against Calipari and his squad of NBA apprentices.
Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy recently blasted UMass’s decision to honor Calipari, dropping an absurd analogy that likened him to Bill Cosby. Sports Illustrated named Calipari among the most disliked people in sports. Four of his players are projected as first-round picks, which would give him at least two for the sixth consecutive draft.
Unlike most, I like Calipari and hope Kentucky completes a perfect season.
I like the way he gets blue-chippers to play together and sacrifice individual stats for team success. I also think claims that he cheats are overblown, based on assumptions and two incidents 10 years apart that arguably didn’t involve him (Marcus Camby taking money from an agent and Derrick Rose cheating on an SAT exam).
If you simply can’t stomach Calipari, more “wholesome” popular options include Wisconsin and Duke, even with the latter taking a hit this month over questions on its response to sexual assault allegations against Rasheed Sulaimon. The Blue Devils also boast a local connection in senior guard Quinn Cook, who last week was named second-team All-America by the Sporting News.
Inevitably, season-long patrons complain about offerings that aren’t available at the year-ending feast. The most prominent entrees snubbed this year include Temple and Colorado State, which have to settle for being top seeds in the NIT, along with Old Dominion and Richmond.
It doesn’t matter that their odds of winning the title would be about the same as the Leopards, Ospreys, Chanticleers and Anteaters. Critics have to find something to complain about.
The rest of us can just sit back and enjoy the meal.