Tuesday, March 18, 2003

NCAA hoops: Madness Central

Let the games begin

Welcome to Hoops Heaven, otherwise known as Cincinnati.

While college basketball buffs nationwide are checking the stats and filling their brackets for that all-American rite of spring, the NCAA tournament, area fans have more high-ranking teams to cheer than just about anybody in the country.

With the Xavier Musketeers celebrating a No. 3 seed in the South Regional and the UC Bearcats grabbing a No. 8 seed in the West despite a lackluster season, the city will be well represented in the tournament, which begins Thursday. And yes, with all the Big Blue fans in town, we can't forget the top-ranked University of Kentucky's No. 1 Midwest seed.

But those teams are just three of the reasons why no area of the country is hotter than the Tristate for hoops. Consider this fact:

Eight of the 64 bracket slots belong to teams within a couple hours' drive from downtown Cincinnati. Besides, UC, Xavier and UK, there's Dayton (No. 4 in the Midwest), Louisville (No. 4 in the East) and Indiana (No. 7 in the Midwest), plus a couple of sleeper teams from Indianapolis - Butler University (No. 12 in the East) and Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI or "Ooee-Pooee"), a No. 16 seed and UK's first-round sacrificial victim.

Cast your net an hour or so wider from Cincinnati, and you encounter tournament teams Purdue (No. 9 in the South) and Western Kentucky (No. 13 in the West). Then there's Notre Dame, Illinois, Memphis, Eastern Tennessee State, Pittsburgh ...

You get the idea.

On the women's side, both XU and UC won No. 10 seeds to the tournament, which also features Ohio State (No. 4), Purdue (No. 2), Notre Dame (No. 11), Western Kentucky (No. 13) and Valparaiso (No. 15).

This all gives Tristate fans plenty of fodder for the office pool - not that there's anything wrong with that. As the Enquirer reported two years ago, many human resources directors believe the tournament actually helps productivity in the workplace instead of hindering it.

To be sure, this year's tournament comes at a difficult time. With war looming in Iraq, fans fixating over college games on TV might seem frivolous.

But sports have always helped provide a sense of normality that the nation needs, especially in times of crisis. Athletics touch upon many of the principles that are important to us as a culture - competition, hard work, fair play, teamwork and much more.

So study the charts, make your picks, warm up the TV and enjoy the games. And may the best team win, as long as it's from around here.

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