Sunday, March 14, 2004

Top 50 things we love about March Madness

Florida Today

Warm up the Xerox. Strike up the Gonzaga fight song. Let the boss know you'll be taking an extended lunch Thursday.

March Madness is almost upon us, that one-of-a-kind time of year when heroes are born, brackets are busted ... and Florida doesn't last past the first weekend.

The top 50 things about the NCAA Tournament:

1. Office pools. Yeah, technically they're illegal, but don't expect local law enforcement to come barging into your place of work to break up your March Madness ring. Florida Assistant State Attorney Michael Hunt can't remember anyone being prosecuted for playing a tournament bracket in his 35-plus years on the job.

After all, they happen in every office, right?

"They do not happen here," Hunt said. "They best not happen here."

2. No best-of-seven format. "It's the ultimate one-and-done scenario," says ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski. "Better yet, there's a human element involved: the selection committee, as well as the players, coaches and fans. Put all of this into a martini mixer and you get upsets, upstarts, unlikely heroes, unlikely champions. It's match play on legal steroids."

3. No. 12 seeds. From Wisconsin-Green Bay (over Cal in 1994) to Wyoming (over Virginia in '87), you can always count on a No. 12 seed or two springing a first-round upset over a No. 5. "The format for college basketball is the best because it give the underdog a chance to beat the favorite every game," says Jack "Goose" Givens, the voice of the Orlando Magic and a March Madness legend himself for the 41 points he scored to send Kentucky past Duke in the 1978 final. "The excitement is unmatched and it gives the players that don't get a lot of publicity a chance to excel on the national stage."

4. The first two days of the tournament. There aren't a better 48 hours in sports. Hope you saved up some sick days.

5. The Drews. Nancy couldn't have come up with a better tale than this: In 1998, the coach's kid, Bryce Drew, drills a 3-pointer from the wing as time expires to lift 13th-seeded Valparaiso to its first-ever NCAA Tournament victory, 70-69 over Mississippi. Then, eight years later, dad Homer Drew comes out of retirement to coach the Crusaders for a year after his other son, Scott Drew, leaves Valpo to take over Baylor. This year, Pops has Valpo back in the dance.

6. No Brent Musburger. You can have him, college football.

7. Bird vs. Magic. Before they saved the NBA, Larry Legend and Magic Johnson treated us to one of the greatest NCAA finals ever.

8. Upsets. We consulted Dick Vitale for his top five of all-time.

In no particular order ...

- N.C. State over Houston, 1983 final.

- Villanova over Georgetown, 1985 final.

- Santa Clara over Arizona, 1993 first round.

- Richmond over Syracuse, 1991 first round.

- Hampton over Iowa State, 2001 first round.

9. UCLA. Too bad the Bruins will sit out this dance. They're always good for a few thrills (Tyus Edney's coast-to-coast drive against Missouri, Bill Walton's 21-for-22 final against Memphis State, John Wooden's seven straight national titles) and spills (first-round losses to Princeton and Detroit).

10. Postgame press conferences. Our favorite Final Four quote came following the 1990 final from Larry Johnson, who starred for Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV Runnin' Rebels: "We wanted to win this championship bad so that the NCAA guys will have to stare at the trophy on Coach's desk when they ask all those questions during the next investigation."

11. The 1982 title game. Catch it on ESPN Classic if you can. No final has featured more talent, be it on the floor (Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, James Worthy and Sam Perkins were among the 19 draft picks) or the sidelines (Dean Smith and John Thompson were among six future national coach of the year award winners).

12. Cleveland State. Gonzaga before anyone knew there was a Gonzaga. Ken "Mouse" McFadden & Co. showed Indiana the door in a 1986 first-round game. It got the attention of Bob Knight's Hoosiers, who went on to win it all the next year.

13. David Robinson. The poor fella scored 50 against Michigan in 1987 - and lost.

14. The terminology. Bracket busters ... Cinderella ... The bubble ... March Madness. What other sporting event has its own lingo?

15. You can't buy an NCAA basketball championship. Just ask Michigan's Fab Five.

16. The great conference debate. Which is the best league in the land? Is it the ACC, which ranks No. 1 in the RPI, or the Big 12, which had two teams reach the Final Four a year ago? Some would argue it's the SEC, which has produced the most national champions over the last 10 years. Or is it the Big East, which has had two of the last five? We'll have you an answer on April 5.

17. Underdogs. You know one of these East Tennessee States or Eastern Washingtons is going to spring a first-round upset. The tricky part is picking which ones for your bracket. Ryan Jones, senior editor for SLAM Magazine, calls it "predictable unpredictability. There's no need to go in with a rooting interest because you'll find a team or five to root for soon enough. The scrappy underdog squad that presses or backdoors its way into the second round, the unknown sharpshooter or dunker from the MEAC or Ivy League or Southern Conference who catches your eye. You can count on seeing something you didn't expect, even though it happens every year."

18. The St. Joseph's Hawk. The hardest-working member of America's No. 1 team isn't point guard Jameer Nelson or the head coach Phil Martelli. It's the indefatigable Hawk mascot, which flaps its arms through the entire game and halftime.

19. There's hope for Florida State. Since 1960, 26 teams have made the field with losing conference records. Among them: the 1998 Seminoles, who went 6-10 in the ACC - the same mark as this year's FSU bunch.

20. Selection Sunday. In Missouri, Maryland and Michigan, they'll be huddled around the big-screen TV waiting to hear their name called. But some bubbles will be burst at 6 p.m., when CBS unveils the brackets. To get you ready, CBS has the SEC Tournament final at 1 and the Big Ten battle at 3:30.

21. Rick Majerus. Here's hoping CBS brings him in for some between-game analysis. Our favorite Majerus studio show moment: When asked by Pat O'Brien how he handled tough losses, the Utah coach said, "Pat, win or lose, I eat my a- off."

22. Bob Knight. "The General" is always in rare form this time of year. Our three favorite Bob Knight March Madness moments:

- Quizzed in 2000 about a report claiming he choked ex-Hoosier Neil Reed, Knight asked a media gathering: "It amazed me in this TV thing, what is an 'unnamed source?' Is an unnamed source me standing up here and saying, 'I was just told outside by somebody not wishing to be named that 65 percent of the men in this room are having extramarital affairs with sheep'?"

- After his Hoosiers lost to Colorado in the first round in 1997, Knight walked 2 1/2 miles in the rain back to the team hotel. It was 1 o'clock in the morning.

- An irate Dale Brown challenged Knight to a naked wrestling match after the Indiana coach banged his fist into the scorer's table in 1987 vs. LSU. Knight was fined $ 10,000 by the NCAA.

23. Texas Western 72, Kentucky 65. In a game that forever changed the face of college basketball, Texas Western's five black starters stunned Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky powerhouse for the 1966 title. (Fun fact: Bobby Joe Hill, a 5-foot-10 guard for Texas Western, is the shortest player to lead an NCAA champion in scoring average).

24. The NIT. Not a bad booby prize - and not bad basketball, either. Our all-time NIT starting five: Ralph Sampson (Virginia), Reggie Miller (UCLA), George Mikan (DePaul), Lenny Wilkens (Providence) and Walt Frazier (Southern Illinois).

25. Everyone gets a chance. This isn't the snooty Bowl Championship Series, where only teams from the top six leagues get a title shot. In college basketball, all 326 teams have a chance to play their way into the dance through conference tournaments.

26. Gonzaga. The school that's given us Bing Crosby, John Stockton and one magical March moment after another.

27. Neutral sites. Not since John Wooden's Bruins cut down the nets in LA in 1972 has a team won a title in its home city. Nothing says NCAA Tournament quite like a first-round Boston College-BYU matchup in Boise.

28. Jerry Tarkanian's towel

29. Chris Webber's timeout

30. Keith Smart's swish from the corner

31. Danny Ainge's drive

32. Rumeal Robinson's free throws

33. Christian Laettner's turnaround jumper. He catches Grant Hill's fullcourt pass, he twists, he shoots ... he scores, beating Kentucky 104-103 in double-overtime.

34. Loyola Marymount 149, Michigan 115, 1990. Jeff Fryer hit 11 of 15 3-pointers in the highest-scoring game in tournament history.

35. Stanford. You gotta love a program which, in the words of coach Mike Montgomery, "has not sacrificed its academic integrity for athletic success." Freshman student-athletes boast SAT scores of 1,100-plus and GPAs of 3.6. Not too shabby for an athletic department which has had its fair share of superstars (John Elway, Eric Heiden, John McEnroe, Mike Mussina, Tiger Woods).

36. Wall-to-wall basketball. The first two days, you can watch games from morning to midnight.

37. Danny and the Miracles. Yes, one great player can carry a team to a championship, as Danny Manning and Kansas taught us in 1988.

38. Jim Valvano. Where were you when the late, great N.C. State coach danced a jig at center court after his Wolfpack stunned Houston in the 1983 final on Lorenzo Charles' last-second dunk?

39. April. The tournament's so good, they've extended it a month. This year's Final Four starts April 3.

40. Duke. Go ahead and pencil Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils in your Sweet 16. They've been there six straight years - twice as many times as the next schools on the list (Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland).

41. CBS. We miss Al McGuire, but the network still does the tournament right. It better after forking over $6 billion in 1999 for the exclusive rights to broadcast the tournament for 11 years.

42. The 1983 national semifinals. Houston vs. Louisville. Phi Slamma Jamma vs. the Doctors of Dunk. Clyde "the Glide" Drexler vs. Darrell "Dr. Dunkenstein" Griffith. "When you were under the basket as the referee, you thought you were in London for the Blitzkrieg," longtime official Hank Nichols said. "We were running to get out of the way."

43. Darvin Ham's slam. In 1996, the Texas Tech high-flier brought down the house - and the backboard - against North Carolina in Richmond, Va.

44. Your Aunt Marge picking more games right than Billy Packer. "The receiving clerk who knows the least about the game usually winds up winning the office pool," says Sports Illustrated college basketball writer Alexander Wolff.

45. Sure shots. This is the time of year when shooting stars are born. In 1985, we watched Villanova sink 22 of 28 shots to stun Georgetown. Two years later, Indiana's Steve Alford made like Jimmy Chitwood in "Hoosiers," canning 7 of 10 3-pointers in the title game. Two years after that, Michigan's Glen Rice shot a stunning 55.1 percent from three-point country to set the all-time tournament scoring record (184 points in six games).

46. The play-in game. The madness now starts on Tuesday, with the worst two teams in the field duking it out to play the best. Enjoy, Florida A&M.

47. Georgetown 50, Princeton 49, 1989 first round. The greatest upset that never was.

48. Freshmen. March Madness is where we were introduced to a kid named Michael Jordan, who hit the game-winner against Georgetown in '82, and Carmelo Anthony, who carried Syracuse to the 2003 title.

LeBron, you don't know what you're missing.

49. Anyone can win. Well, not quite anyone. But this year more than any other, there are no clear-cut couple championship contenders. "It's the most wide-open tournament the NCAA's had in a long, long time," UCF coach Kirk Speraw says.

50. Richmond. The itsy-bitsy Spiders ended the collegiate careers of Charles Barkley (Auburn) and Billy Owens (Syracuse), and shocked third-seeded South Carolina in '98 and fourth-seeded Indiana in '88.

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