Monday, March 11, 2002

65 teams not enough




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        The NCAA Tournament proves the same postulate I've been preaching for my last five belt sizes: Bloated is beautiful.

        Too much of a good thing is better than not enough of it. Wretched excess beats miserly minimalism eight days a week. Only the decline in the gross national product directly attributable to office pools detracts from this feast of fun, this banquet of ballyhoo, this smorgasbord of sensation.

        (NOTE TO SELF: Keep it up, pal, and you'll be buying another belt.)

        Even a first-round matchup between Duke and Winthrop, which would be utterly pointless under normal circumstances, becomes morbidly fascinating in the context of this crucible.

        Duke is the defending national champion. Winthrop is defending the honor of the Big South Conference, which is 0-10 in NCAA Tournament play.

        “You've got your Davids and you've got your Goliaths,” Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall said Sunday night. “Obviously, our chances to advance are not as good as if we were playing another (No.) 15 or 16 seed like ourselves. But I've got a pretty good slingshot and two pockets full of rocks. We want to give them something to talk about.”

        If the NCAA Tournament is not always AWESOME BAY-BEE, it is consistently compelling. It is the one major sporting event that is annually equal to its hype. There is no method to March Madness, no escaping it and no denying its drama.

        I used to think 64 teams were too many; that the expansion of the tournament diluted the significance of the regular season. Now, there are 65 teams and I think there are too few. I share Butler's sorrow at being slighted. I feel Bowling Green's pain. If I don't mourn for Memphis, it's only because talent is no substitute for teamwork and the Memphis blues are driven by disappointment.

        Like most sports fans, I'm a sucker for spectacle, for the frantic last possession of a one-point game, for the deep breath and the extra dribble before the decisive free throw, for the improbable upstart and the clay-footed favorite, for Cinderella and all those coaches who turn into pumpkins as time runs out.

        That's why I wish Xavier were a No. 8 seed instead of a No. 7, so the Muskies might meet the University of Cincinnati with a whole season at stake as soon as next Sunday. The local rivals could still meet in the West Regional championship, but that matchup is contingent on (among other things) an XU upset of Oklahoma.

        Should all the favorites advance in the West, however, UC would meet Ohio State for the first time since the 1962 NCAA Championship game in a West Regional semifinal in San Jose. And wouldn't that be delicious?

        In an effort to reduce travel expenses and — theoretically, at least — enable players to put in more class time, tournament organizers redrew the bracket this year with flexible first and second-round “pods” instead of rigid regionals. Thirty-nine teams will play their first-round game in their own time zone, compared to 22 last March.

        The Winthrop Eagles must travel only 90 miles to meet Duke. It's a short trip, but a hard road.

        “I like our chances over the 200-some teams that don't get to play Duke,” Gregg Marshall said. “Not much, but a little bit.”

        E-mail tsullivan@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/sullivan.

       



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