Screw the Snow, itís NCAA Tournament Time Baby
BY ZACH PRETZER
Winter Term is over, Valentineís Day is in the past, MLB spring training has begun and we just received those rooming slips from ResLife for next year. So what does all of this mean? How is this relevant to the sports world?
Well, for starters, forget about being discouraged about your random number and rejoice in the fact that itís March. The snow is off the ground ó err, or at least will be in a month or so. Itís March Madness, baby ó one of the most exciting and purest forms of competition in all of sports. How could a sports fan not be excited?
After all, where else can you see players giving it their all, in sweat and blood, throughout the day, all across the country? No, Iím not talking about the NBA. Unlike the NBA, these guys donít get paid for it ó instead, they make us the money in our tournament brackets at work and in class. So get those brackets ready and your wallets out, because itís going to be one hell of an exciting NCAA tournament, beginning next week.
Earlier this year, I predicted that Duke and Arizona were absolutely going to be the teams to beat. Although Arizona hasnít had the season that they hoped for, they are still going to be tough in the tournament, and Duke has definitely lived up to all the hype they received during the preseason.
Stanford has surprised a lot of people by going 27-1 with two regular season games remaining, but they always blow it early into the tournament. The returning NCAA champion, Michigan State, has played solidly, going 24-3 heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
For the majority of the season, however, all of the good teams have been beating each other constantly, which is all the more reason to expect a huge number of upsets in the upcoming NCAA tournament. After all, itís when the big teams beat each other that a small school such as Gonzaga sneaks in and surprises everybody.
Other top teams in the nation, such as North Carolina, Kansas, Maryland, Kentucky, Virginia, St. Joeís and UCLA are going to have their hands full once all of the tournament slots are settled and play begins.
It is because of teams such as Illinois, Florida, Iowa St., Boston College and Ohio State that anything can and will happen. This is quite possibly the year for the underdog. The big task for these teams, however, will be getting past perennial powers Duke, Michigan State and North Carolina.
So is there really a way to be able to tell who has the best chance at being crowned as the NCAA champion? First of all, itís important to know that a teamís regular season record hardly tells the complete the story ó what matters most is how tough their schedule was. Regardless, the tournament selection committee has to pick four teams as the number one seeds, and it is almost certain that they will be Stanford, Duke, North Carolina and Illinois. In all likelihood, the number two seeds will be Michigan State and Florida for sure, and Iowa State and Kentucky could slip into the number two spot as well. That leaves the third seeds for teams such as Virginia, Kansas, UCLA and Boston College, who have compiled near 20-win seasons.
But, as many past tournaments have shown, getting the top seeds do anything but ensure an NCAA championship. On that note, I am going to give a list of who I think the top five teams to beat are heading into the tournament, as well as the top five ďsleepersĒ ó that is, the teams who have a legitimate shot at upsetting the top-ranked teams and making it far into the tournament.
The Teams to Beat
Duke, 26-3. Despite the fact that Stanford has played exceptionally well this season, Duke played perhaps the toughest schedule in all of college this year and only came out with three losses. Keep in mind, they spent a large part of the later season without one of their key players, Carlos Boozer. By continuing to dominate teams without Boozer, Duke has shown that are going to tough to knock off. Although last year was quite disappointing for the Blue Devils, donít look for them to make the same mistakes this March.
Florida, 22-5. The SEC was extremely competitive this season, and the Gators managed to pull out their third straight 20-win season. They will receive at least a number two seed in the tournament, and they have been beating top 25 teams with regularity and by a large number of points. As shown by their finish in last yearís tournament, they are going to be a team who is incredibly difficult to beat.
Stanford, 27-1. By looking at their record, surely no could doubt their legitimacy as number one team; however, if you look at the difficulty of their schedule (or lack thereof), itís hard to say what they will be able to accomplish in the tournament. Their conference, the Pac-10, wasnít nearly as tough as the ACC or the Big 10 this season. Due to their current number one ranking, itís impossible for me to not make them one of the top five teams to beat, but it would surprise me if they make it past it the second round.
Michigan State, 24-3. The Big 10 would easily receive the award for toughest conference of the year, as it could potentially send seven teams into the tournament ó the Spartans, Ohio State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Penn State and Iowa. Because of the intense competition they faced this season, senior Charlie Bell and his Michigan St. team could quite possibly sneak by the other 63 teams in the field and repeat as champions.
Illinois, 23-5. Their leading scorer and shooting guard, Corey Bradford, is one of the best three-point shooters to ever play college basketball, and his team has pretty much been unstoppable this season. Their only downfall has been a few games against conference opponents, Ohio State and Penn State, in which they blew early leads and played poor second halves. One of their other losses was a one-point defeat to Duke, which is hardly anything to be that disappointed about. They hung with the Blue Devils as well as any other team has this season, and have the ability to do the same in the next few weeks.
The Teams Who Could Beat Them
Gonzaga, 24-6. It never ceases to amaze me that although this team has made outstanding tournament runs the last two years, won their conference for the third straight year and has an outstanding record, they never make it into the AP top 25. They still didnít make the latest poll even though they have won 18 out of their last 19 contests. The Bulldogs, led by guards Dan Dickau and Casey Calvary, are one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, and when they are hot, they are almost unbeatable. They proved that were more than just a Cinderella story last season, and might even further prove it this season by advancing late into March.
Boston College, 20-4. Theyíre probably going to be a third seed in the tournament, but who will take this school seriously? They are the first Big East school to ever go from last place to first place, and have the potential to knock off anybody when they play their best. Not many people associate big-time basketball with this school, rather most relate them to Doug Flutie and his hail-mary touchdown pass. Donít be surprised, though, if Boston College makes a name for themselves this post-season.
Wisconsin, 18-9. The Badgers have one of the best defenses in the nation, and have an outstanding knack for keeping big games close and low-scoring. Led by sophomore guard Kirk Penney, the Badgers could easily repeat their recent success in the tournament despite a possible low seed. The big guns better be careful to not look past this hungry team.
Creighton, 22-6. Even though they lost in the championship game of their conference tournament, the Blue Jays won 10 of their last 11 games, and finished the season with a perfect home record of 14-0. Led by sophomore forward Kyle Korver, Creighton is a lock to make the tournament, and could also be a lock to perform some upsets.
Ohio State, 21-9. No one can question the Buckeyeís legitimacy as a contender after they defeated a highly-ranked Illinois squad a few days ago. Ken Johnson, who holds the Ohio State record for blocked shots and is a potential Big Ten Player of the Year, is just all-around nasty and could provide the spark the Buckeyes need to make it deep into the tournament. Along with blocked shots, Johnson and Ohio State could be telling quite a few teams to get the hell out of here.
Itís Womenís March Madness; Wanna Dance?
BY JESSICA ROSENBERG
As you might have guessed by now, Iím from Indiana, and itís March. You may wonder what the connection is, or have no idea that Hoosiers cared so much about Womenís History Month. No really, itís womenís NCAA tournament time, and that means basketball, the state religion, will have its high holy days.
While March Madness is a national phenomenon, Hoosier Hysteria is a yearlong happening that culminates in a big Division I frenzy. The tourney is called the Big Dance because itís like an invitation-only formal. All of the Division I teams in the nation play the regular season hoping to pile up enough wins to be chosen by the committee to play in March. But just as the prom would be no fun if only the Prom Court were there, so the NCAAs need their science team captains and girls in black makeup.
Hence the automatic bid. If you win your conference tournament, youíre into the national tourney no matter what. Usually in the womenís game this works to the advantage of the top teams, as in this yearís Big East final matchup of #1 Notre Dame and #2 UConn, neither of whom would have beaten the í99 Purdue squad. Regardless, hardly anyone was worried about those teamsí chances of getting in. But it also makes for some great Cinderella stories, as little teams upset powerhouses to take a turn on the Big Dance floor. This weekend, the selection is finally happening, and things are getting very interesting in womenís hoops as the final week of conference play winds down.
Enough of this introductory stuff, youíre saying, whoís going to get the coveted number one seeds? 64 of the nationís Division I teams are lucky enough to go to the Dance. Since the womenís field isnít particularly deep, that means that the number one seeds in each region, (each region has 32 teams, 16 of whom are ranked) generally get an easy first three rounds. But hereís the kicker. If youíre the number one seed you donít necessarily play in your home region. Itís a mixed blessing to lead the Dance, but itís better than having your toes stepped on by, say, St. Maryís. Letís cut to the chase.
Thereís big news from the Big East. As previously mentioned, Notre Dame and UConn faced each other in a fabulous game. Sue Bird hit a bucket at the buzzer to give the Huskies the 78-76 shocker. All is not rosy for the defending champs, however. In fact, theyíre screwed. Shea Ralph went down with yet another knee injury. Her college career is over. Thatís not going to prevent UConn from being the Eastís top seed, though. Theyíve been leading the bracket since the mind of woman runneth not to the contrary and they just defeated the nationís number one team.
Diana Taurasi had UConn fans saying ĎSvet who?í after scoring 24 points in 27 minutes last week against Tennessee, but without Ralph I donít give this team much of a chance. Sheís a real hero for so many reasons; her courageous battle against anorexia has been an inspiration to girls nationwide, and what the college game loses, the WNBA will gain.
In the Mideast, Tennessee will prevail. Somehow the Lady Vols clawed their way to a great year yet again, even after the season-ending injury to All-American Tamika Catchings. They have only lost twice this season, have defeated UConn and have been ranked number one. Give them an ĎAí for effort and a good shot at getting out of what may be the tournamentís toughest bracket.
Now comes the time in the column when every fan of a Midwestern team prays that Notre Dame receives the top bid in the West. Itís fantastic to see a Hoosier team playing so well and getting some much-needed attention for their fundamental, hard-working style of play. The Irish, with Player of the Year lock Ruth Riley at the helm, have piled up the tough, gritty wins, and the conference loss will provide a spark out there in the West
So if Notre Dame doesnít carry the Midwest (So they will. Quiet.) who will? All of ESPNís pundits have picked the same team. No question about where I stand. I. Hate. Duke. I hate Georgia Schweitzer. I hate Gail Goestenkors. I hate Duke. The enmity between Duke and the Boilers is long and complicated, going back to the theft of a large swath of our 1994 recruitment class.
The Lady Blue Devils think that by winning the paltry ACC they can sneak their way into a top seeding over Tennessee, Louisiana Tech and Georgia, who have a combined 81 wins and 11 losses. Dream on. Tech coach Leon Barmore will be apoplectic about losing home region advantage again, but he should count his blessings. He came out of retirement and took a team with a sidelined star and no seniors to a top slot yet again. Tech will receive whichever seed doesnít go to Notre Dame, and Vols coach Pat Summitt will do a hula on the hardcourts of Cameron Indoor Stadium. I would like to add, however, that if by some final-week trickery Duke does get a backdoor cut to a top seed, I have one question ó who was holding the ball when the clock ran out in í99?
So does this tell us who will go to the Final Four? Hardly. There are at least 15 other teams per bracket who think they have a chance to go all the way. I have always respected the can-do spirit of Rutgers, and Georgia has been ranked in the top five all year. ďIím sorry Miz Jackson,Ē but Purdue is for real ó even if they make this daughter cry with their almost weekly losses to tough Big 10 competition. A number of Southern teams like Vandy and Texas Tech have shown fight, as have some darkhorses in the West: Oklahoma and Iowa State.
The road to the Final Four will be filled with great basketball and greater stories. This is a passionate time, and it is riveting drama. If you want to watch sports at their finest, most personal and purest, you can do no better.