Thu, May 23

Bring on the hoops Madness

And wives, be kind if your husband takes over the couch tomorrow in the a.m. and doesn't move a whole lot until Sunday evening, except to refill his beverage glass and chips-and-salsa tray.

Yes, folks, it's March Madness time once again. College basketball's mad dash to the finish line, where 65 teams pursue their "one shining moment" and otherwise normal individuals stress over whether Western Kentucky will mess up their office pool or if Gonzaga really is good enough to reach the Sweet 16 again.

This weekend, especially, is the hoops' equivalent of drinking water from a fire hydrant as the field trims down to 16 teams in four days.

Millions of brackets will be penciled in before N.C. State and Michigan State tip it all off at 10:15 Thursday morning.

And millions of folks will grumble April 1 when their unassuming new secretary, who doesn't know Luke Walton from Luke Skywalker, walks away with the office pool using her strategy of comparing which teams' mascots sound tougher.

Don't you love it? Somebody pass me the RPI ratings.

Even the casual sports fan is attracted to the NCAA basketball tournament. How can you not be? It's got all of the drama, personality clashes, intrigue and unpredictable endings of a soap opera.

Where else can you see grown men leap into arms of their players and spin around like kids on a swing (see Hampton coach Steve Merfeld's dance after an upset last year)? Where else is it socially acceptable for college-aged men to hold hands in tense situations and cry like babies when their teams coming up short at the final buzzer?

It's madness indeed.

Before we dive into the games, here are a few observations to further stoke your interest. Of course, before you use this information to finalize your picks, you might want to check with your secretary, who's studying up on school mascots as we speak.

WEST IS BEST: Lute Olson expected his Arizona Wildcats to end up a three seed in the West, but the legendary coach was probably as surprised as anyone to find out just how strong that region is.

Four tournament champions from major conferences are here – Arizona, Cincinnati, Ohio State and Oklahoma, plus big names like UCLA and Miami.

Consider the hurdles Arizona could face to advance back to the NCAA title game, provided they beat Santa Barbara in round one – Gonzaga (ranked sixth in the nation), Oklahoma (third), Cincinnati (fifth) and Duke (first). Yikes – some reward for winning the PAC-10 tournament.

FIRST NUMBER-ONE SEED OUT: Most would say Cincinnati, considered the weakest of the four number ones. I say Kansas, which has a habit of early exits.

Stanford or Western Kentucky could have the Jayhawks boo-hooing in round two. If not, someone like Illinois or Florida could knock them off in the Sweet 16.

MY FINAL FOUR: Duke, Oklahoma, Maryland and Illinois – with Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils cutting down the nets on April 1, no fooling.

GET THE GLASS SLIPPERS READY FOR: Western Kentucky, Valparaiso, Southern Illinois, Hampton, Pepperdine and Central Connecticut State.

Western Kentucky has 28 wins and Central Connecticut 27 – formidable feats no matter what conference. Valpo has a habit of springing tournament upsets, and its first opponent, Kentucky, has looked shaky at times. Hampton won as a 15th seed last year and returns to that spot again – look out Connecticut.

Pepperdine has a coach recognizable to Suns’ fans, Paul Westphal. The Waves won at UCLA and USC, and topped Gonzaga at home. Southern Illinois sweated an at-large berth and will be eager to prove themselves.

EXPECT AN EARLY EXIT FOR: Oregon – the PAC-10 regular season champs may be a two seed but don’t have much NCAA experience. The Ducks haven’t won a tourney game since 1961.

WATCH OUT FOR: Ohio State. Jim O’Brien is a great coach, and the Buckeyes are coming off an impressive Big Ten tournament title.

WELCOME BACK: N.C. State. The Wolfpack, which brought us Jim Valvano and an amazing upset of Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma in 1983, returns to the NCAAs for the first time since 1991.

EASIEST REGION: The South. Duke should roll through to the Final Four without much sweat. Southern Cal, the number four seed, looks like the only formidable challenger.

WORST RECORD: Siena at 16-18. The Metro Atlantic tournament champs are the only ones with a losing record. Montana, the Big Sky representative, is 16-14. Can you say "first-round fodder?"

BIGGEST SNUB: Butler, 25-5 record. The Bulldogs paid the price for not winning their conference tournament.

BIGGEST SNUB II: Gonzaga. The ‘Zags got into the tourney, but a number six national ranking and 29-3 overall record netted them only a six seed – in the toughest region. An Arizona-Gonzaga match-up, which seems likely in round two, could be one of the weekend's best.

BIGGGEST NAME NOT TO MAKE THE CUT: The state of North Carolina got six teams in – Duke, Wake Forest, N.C. State, Charlotte, Davidson and UNC-Wilmington.

But the school with the most hoops notoriety of them all, the North Carolina Tar Heels, are missing for the first time in almost three decades.

The program that brought us Michael Jordan, Vince Carter, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Dean Smith, the four corners offense, etc. had the longest streak of consecutive NCAA appearances until this forgettable 8-20 season.

BEST PLAYER NAMES: Watch out for Ryan Butt (Boston), Branduinn Fullove (Cal Santa Barbara), Predrag Savovic (Hawaii), Carlos Boozer (Duke), Brett Blizzard (UNC-Wilmington), Ugonna Onyekwe (Penn), Koko Archibong (Penn) and Prosper Karangwa (Siena),

BIGGEST SNUB III: The Arizona State women. You win a major conference tournament (the PAC-10) and finish 24-8, and you only get a nine seed? The Sun Devils face a tough first-round foe and the prospect of playing a number one seed in round two.