W elcome to the best event in sports. No, not the World Baseball Classic. The NCAA Tournament — 64 games spread over three weeks — has captured the American fancy like nothing else.
Most of that comes from the ubiquitous bracket. It evens the playing field. You need to be a football fan to intelligently discuss the Super Bowl. But everyone can fill out a bracket — and just about everyone has the same chance of winning the office pool.
In March, it seems, ignorance is bliss. The less you know, the better your brackets turn out.
But the fascination with the NCAA Tournament extends beyond the brackets. It's the moments and each tournament provides more than its share. It crams a lifetime of buzzer-beaters and classic moments into three weeks.
Everyone has a favorite game-winner. Tyus Edney going the length of the court. Christian Laettner's shot against Kentucky. Keith Smart from the corner.
And everyone has a favorite underdog moment. Bryce Drew for Valpo. Princeton toppling UCLA with a backdoor cut. Jim Valvano looking for someone to hug. Villanova dethroning mighty Georgetown. Hampton stunning Iowa State in Boise.
It all happened during the tournament — the best event in sports.
WASHINGTON, D.C. REGIONAL
Favorite: Top-seeded Connecticut, the nation's most talented team, leads a top-heavy bracket. The Huskies have all the ingredients of a national champion: experience, exceptional height, depth, individual talent, clutch shot-makers and a great coach. But UConn just doesn't feel like a national champ.
Sleeper: No. 6 seed Michigan State always makes noise in March. Led by three outstanding players (Paul Davis, Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown) and one of the tournament's best coaches (Tom Izzo), the Spartans could be headed to their fifth Final Four in eight seasons.
Overseeded: The committee stuck all of its questionable decisions in the bottom half of this bracket. No. 9 UAB, No. 10 Seton Hall, No. 11 George Mason, No. 12 Utah State and No. 13 Air Force were all on the bubble Sunday. Air Force shouldn't be in the field. NIT-bound Missouri State should.
Underseeded: Sixth-seeded Wichita State, which won the Missouri Valley regular-season title, should be a 5. But that's getting picky.
Best potential second-round game: No. 3 North Carolina vs. Michigan State.
Player to watch: North Carolina freshman center Tyler Hansbrough was named first-team All-ACC after becoming the first Tar Heel freshman to lead the team in scoring (19.0) and rebounding (7.6). His motor never stops, as evidenced by his ACC-leading 3.5 offensive rebounds per game, and Hansbrough is the biggest reason the defending national champs have had such a good season.
Team to root for: No. 15 Winthrop is making its sixth NCAA appearance in eight years. The Eagles have yet to win an NCAA game, but they're getting closer. After being dropped by an average of 36.7 games in 1999, 2000 and 2002 and losing in the play-in game in 2001, Winthrop lost to Gonzaga 74-64 last year. Even against Tennessee, the weakest No. 2 seed, Winthrop will be a major underdog.
Sweet 16: Connecticut vs. Illinois; North Carolina vs. Wichita State
Winner: Connecticut over North Carolina
Favorite: As good as top-seeded Villanova is, the Wildcats are one bad-shooting night from going home. And who knows how guard Allan Ray is going to respond after injuring his eye in the Big East Tournament. So No. 2 Ohio State, which won the Big Ten regular-season crown and advanced to the tournament title game, gets the nod in the bracket that's toughest to pick.
Sleeper: No. 4 Boston College is poised for a long run in the tournament. The Eagles play a tough, physical style and in forwards Craig Smith and Jared Dudley have two imposing low-post players. Coach Al Skinner is underrated.
Overseeded: No. 5 Nevada must have been happy to see Montana pop up in the 12 spot. The Grizzlies, who won the Big Sky Tournament title to secure their berth, were helped by an RPI ranking of 60. But Montana, which lost to Boise State in the season opener, doesn't have the feel of a traditional12 seed. Put it this way: Nevada should be happy not to be playing Texas A&M, Utah State (which nearly beat it in the WAC final) or Kent State — the other 12s.
Underseeded: No one got shafted, though flipping No. 8 Arizona and No. 9 Wisconsin might not be out of the question.
Best potential second-round game: No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 3 Florida.
Player to watch: Florida sophomore Joakim Noah, the son of former tennis great Yannick Noah, is making a name for himself on the basketball court. The 6-11 Noah paced Florida with 15.6 ppg and 7.2 rpg during SEC play. The Gators' top four scorers are all sophomores: Noah, Taurean Green, Corey Brewer and Al Horford.
Team to root for: How about Hampton? The Pirates became fan favorites in Boise by defeating No. 2 seed Iowa State in the 2001 first round at The Pavilion (now Taco Bell Arena). This year, they will have to win their way in against Monmouth in Tuesday's play-in game. Hampton went 12-15 in the regular season and finished sixth in the Mideastern Athletic Conference. But Hampton won four games in four nights to win the tourney title.
Sweet 16: Villanova vs. Boston College; Florida vs. Ohio State
Winner: Ohio State over Boston College
Favorite: There's no clear-cut favorite in this region as top-seeded Memphis is the weakest of the four No. 1 seeds. So let's go with No. 4 Kansas, which toppled Texas for the Big 12 title Sunday. The Jayhawks have won 15 of 16.
Sleeper: No. 7 Marquette emerged from the brutal Big East, which got a record eight teams in the Big Dance. The Golden Eagles are battle-tested and, in senior forward Steve Novak, have one of the best big-game shooters in the nation.
Overseeded: No. 6 Indiana, which a few weeks ago was in danger of missing out on the tournament, wouldn't be out of place in the 8-9 game.
Underseeded: Everyone will complain that Gonzaga got hosed by being a No. 3 seed. Face it, the Bulldogs play in a terrible conference and went to the wire often. Flipping them with No. 2 UCLA wouldn't be bad.
Players to watch: Gonzaga's Adam Morrison is always worth watching, but everyone knows that. Let's go with the San Diego State duo of Brandon Heath (18.5 ppg, 41.1 percent from 3-point range) and Marcus Slaughter (16. ppg, 11.0 rpg). The pair gives the Mountain West champion and No. 11 seed Aztecs a shot at knocking off Indiana.
Best potential second-round game: Kansas vs. No. 5 Pittsburgh, a tough team.
Team to root for: Tiny Belmont (enrollment: 4,300) began its move from NAIA to NCAA Division I in 1996. Now, the Nashville, Tenn., school is dancing after winning the Atlantic Sun Tournament. Forty percent of its student body is in music-related majors and country singer Lee Ann Womack is a grad.
Sweet 16: Memphis vs. Kansas; Indiana vs. Marquette
Winner: Kansas over Marquette
Favorite: Top-seeded Duke, the tournament's overall No. 1 seed, is led by two All-Americans (J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams), a Hall of Fame coach (Mike Krzyzewski) and already hammered No. 2 seed Texas this season.
Sleeper: West Virginia, the No. 6 seed, made a run to the Elite Eight last season. With fan favorite Kevin Pittsnogle and a run-and-gun, 3-point style, it could do so again.
Overseeded: No. 5 Syracuse staged an improbable run in the Big East Tournament, winning four games in four days by a combined eight points. Before that, the Orange weren't in the field.
Underseeded: No. 8 George Washington has been ranked among the top 10 for much of the season. But the Colonials were upset in the Atlantic 10 Tournament and have injury questions surrounding Pops Mensah-Bonsu.
Players to watch: All eyes will be on the sharp-shooting Redick, but LSU's Glen "Big Baby" Davis and California's Leon Powe are big-time talents in the paint. Davis, a 6-foot-9, 310-pound sophomore, averaged 18.5 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. Powe, a 6-8, 240-pound sophomore, averaged 20.7 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.
Best potential second-round game: West Virginia vs. No. 3 Iowa, which won the Big Ten Tournament on Sunday.
Team to root for: No. 13 seed Iona and senior guard Steve Burtt. Burtt, who averaged 25.2 points per game this year, is part of the highest-scoring Division I father-son combo. His dad, also Steve, scored a school-record 2,534 points at Iona. The younger Burt has scored 2,011 in his career.
Sweet 16: Duke vs. Texas A&M; Texas vs. West Virginia
Winner: Duke over West Virginia
FINAL FOUR BREAKDOWN
National Semifinals: Duke vs. Ohio State — With the nation's top-rated recruiting class headed to Columbus, the Buckeyes are supposed to be a dominant force — in the future. But Ohio State won the Big Ten this year. Duke is playing for now with seniors Redick and Williams. Connecticut vs. Kansas — With so much talent, anything less than the Final Four would be a disappointment for Connecticut. Bill Self, in his third season at Kansas, can step out of the shadow of Roy Williams by getting the young Jayhawks this far.
National Championship: Duke vs. Connecticut — Traditional powerhouses (and the two teams atop the rankings all year) fittingly play for it all. Duke avenges its 1999 loss.