The Best Month For Hoops Fans

Bobby Curran
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Friday - March 10, 2006
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For college basketball fans, these next few weeks represent the absolute pinnacle of the sport. While everyone talks about the NCAA tournament itself, the week preceding Selection Sunday is almost as good.

In the smaller conferences, the conference tournaments are all or nothing. In the Big South final, for example, Winthrop and Coastal Carolina played a last-second nail-biter. After Winthrop prevailed by a point, the fans rushed the court as if they’d been crowned national champions. Coastal Carolina, on the other hand, was devastated because they know there will be no at-large bid forthcoming.

The intensity of the action and the passion of the fans create a palpable tension that draws you in, even if you’ve never seen and barely heard of teams involved.

In the larger conferences, the early rounds have as much drama as the finals because those teams are usually in the hunt for at-large berths. Those conference tournaments are typically held at neutral sites, and they’ve become cash cows for all conference members. The NCAA has purchased the NIT, and one change in the NIT selection process will give hope to more of the smaller conference teams. If a team wins the regular season but loses its conference tournament, for the first time that losing team gets an automatic NIT bid. This could mean fewer large conference teams will find themselves invited to the NIT.

The goal for all, however, remains a spot in the Big Dance. While everybody wants to participate in the glamour and glory of our greatest sports spectacle - one man’s opinion - there is also a huge financial incentive to make the field and to advance. Just getting into the first round guarantees more than $300,000, and each victory roughly doubles the take. For conferences that put four or six teams in, we’re talking real money.

This year, a number of mid-major conferences may receive multiple selections. For example, the Missouri Valley Conference has five teams that could stake a claim, and the Colonial Athletic Conference feels it should get three. Considering that the powerful ACC has only four teams that are certain to be invited, it may seem that encroaching parity is the trend.

And a huge part of the charm of the tournament is that a lower seed has an honest chance to knock off a high one. We haven’t yet seen a No. 16 seed down a No. 1 on the men’s side, but it’s probably just a matter of time. Every year seems to find a new Cinderella, a talented yet relatively unknown team that explodes into the Sweet 16.

This year, the Cinderella slipper could be worn by someone like Northern Iowa or George Mason. Scholarship limits and the three-point shot have created opportunities for upsets, and I believe the first Thursday and Friday, where 32 games are played, comprise the two best days of the sports calendar year.

Yet when you get to the Final Four you rarely see the upstart still standing. Cinderella has turned back into a scullery maid. While 10 or 12 teams may have a shot at the title, all but Gonzaga come from the marquee conferences.

Here’s a few to watch down the stretch.

Duke: Many love to hate the Blue Devils, but they have the inside presence and the guard play to get to the Final Waltz. J.J. Redick alone is worth the price of admission.

Villanova: The smallest contender, but they put tremendous pressure on opponents and play at a breakneck pace, and I defy you to find a college player who can stop Randy Foye one on one.

UConn: The Huskies are solid and extremely physical. They’ll intimidate most opponents and flat outplay others. And you gotta love Rudy Gay. On the outer edge, watch Pittsburgh. They have the big guy in Aaron Gray, and the big time guard you need in Carl Krauser.

Happy viewing.

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