When the NCAA Tournament kicks off Thursday in New Orleans, the feel will certainly be festive. And by festive, I mean hungover, because for reasons that only the brilliant minds behind the proposed NCAA Tournament expansion to 96 could likely understand, the first round is taking place in New Orleans the night after St Patricks Day. So in a city where public drunkedness is not only accepted, it is actively encouraged and at times, mandatory, the NCAA is going to place basketball games after the nation's drunkest collective holiday. Its for the kids ladies and gentlemen.
When the games do actually get started however, there will be a lot to see in James Carville's hometown. One of the top two teams in the country, an #8 seed that was ranked #1 overall this season, a certain NIT team that played its way into a #6 seed and quite possibly the most athletic team in America are all setting up shop in New Orleans as they hope to advance on in the South and West regions. Each game has some intrigue, some wackiness and a whole lot of Harangody. An overview:
NOTRE DAME vs OLD DOMINION 12:25
Most people would claim that the iconic figure in college basketball this year was John Wall, the uber-talented UK point guard who dazzled the country with athleticism, wild dunks and game-winning shots. They are wrong. The real icon of college basketball is the man with the worst hair and body in sports, Luke Harangody. If Harangody were a car, he would be a Kia Rondo, tall and boxy, prone to slow, awkward movements and proportionated in such a way as to seem to make success impossible. But like the Kia Rondo, Harangody finds a way to get the job done. When you watch this game today, take a few possessions and simply follow the 'Gody. Like the fat guy who sweats a lot but still finds a way to get garbage buckets in your church league game, the 'Gody will win no beauty points as he looks to the naked eye as the most unathletic basketball players since the cast of "Hang Time" left the court (still Reggie Theus's best coaching job). But he will score, rebound and even defend, all without seemingly being able to make one impressive movement. He is the basketball equivalent to an episode of "Friends," unlikely to leave you feeling the least bit impressed, but garnering solid ratings.
The 'Gody is playing against Old Dominion, a team I actually saw on our Road Trip across America and one that can cause some problems. ODU is as athletic a small school as you will see in the Tournament. They are long at every position and their goal is to get every rebound and outwork you, while playing a brand of basketball that can best be labeled as "boring." Their coach will try to counter the 'Gody's boxcut with his own moustache, a full feathered beauty that is both dark and bushy, a veritable forest under his lip. With his facial hair mesmerizing, it is easy to forget just how talented this team is and it isnt an exaggeration to say that they will be the more athletic team on the floor.
Notre Dame is full of Irish Catholics and the noon start on the day after St Patrick's Day will ensure a small crowd at the opening tip. ODU has the players to get out on the Irish three point shooters and Harangody will not be able to impose his will down low. However the Irish are deeper, have the best player on the floor and by the second half, Johnny O'Malley and the rest of the Irish faithful will stagger into the gym just in time to see the Irish win by 7.
BAYLOR vs SAM HOUSTON STATE 3:00
Every year the NCAA Tournament sees one team develop into a trendy pick to make noise and allows announcers on the Worldwide Leader to get on television and make proclamations that have no real substance but sound important like "I tell you who I like Digger, I like "TEAM X". The way they shoot the ball, play defense and their great Coach _____, this is a team that can really make some noise. I am not saying I will pick them over (INSERT #1 seed), but it wouldnt shock me if they get hot and cut down the nets to the Final Four. While the announcer says this, all of the other blow-dryed hairpieces on set shake their head and proclaim that they too like this team and have been on board with them all year. Inevitably this team is never as good as these paid airbags say they are and often the disappointment starts in game one.
This season that team is most certainly Baylor. You cant throw a stick without running into someone who has Baylor as their "sleeper team into the Final Four." The Bears are coached by Scott Drew and have found a way to turn around a basketball program that was long thought to be dead. However considering the fact tha tmost fans couldn't name one player on the Bears' roster, annoitment as a Final Four team seems a bit premature. As for Sam Houston State, they are fun to watch. They bring it up and down quickly, like to shoot a lot of three pointers and try to win by managing the game pace. Earlier this season they gave Kentucky a run for its money in Rupp Arena and since then, have put up great shooting performances week after week. Baylor isnt the greatest draw for Sam Houston, because they can match the athleticism that Sam Houston uses to dominate its opponents. But if they hit threes, then who knows what can happen.
Did you like how I got you excited right there....made you think that I was going to pick the upset upstarts? Not going to happen. Had SHS gotten a slow, methodical team, I might pull the shocker. As is, Baylor moves on and makes pundits shake their head and nod that they are the team to watch in the games ahead.
KENTUCKY VS EAST TENNESSEE STATE 7:00 PM
You know all about Kentucky, Calipari, Wall, Cousins, etc. They are really good and no group of players since Shane Battier was smiling and going to class every day at Duke have received the consistent national publicity of this group of Kentucky players. They have been visited by Lebron, Magic, Ashley Judd, Drake, Ben Roethlisberger (pre-college town romp), Mike Tomlin, Charles Barkley and even the biggest star of them all, World Wide Wes. They have raised over a million bucks for Haiti, talked to the President over the phone and even got to rub on Seth Davis's rosy cheeks. It has been such a strange, magical journey. But now it gets real and the games mean more. All the goodwill of the 32-2 campaign that has won the hearts of Kentuckians is at stake in one three-week period where anything can happen.
Well almost anything. What can't happen is losing to ETSU in the first round on Thursday night. ETSU famously was once led by a player that makes the NCAA all "hey I remember that guy but I have no idea where he went to school" list, Keith "Mr." Jennings. For it was 21 years ago that Jennings took a #16 seeded ETSU team and very nearly pulled the shocker over #1 seeded Oklahoma. They hope to bring that kind of magic back to light again, but this time against a much bigger fish and a much more talented group of players. Win partor lose, they will probably take solace in the fact that they will head back to Johnson City, Tennessee after the game and be greeted by the hottest group of mountain coeds this side of a very special episode of Hee-Haw.
Kentucky wins by a lot and moves on, much to the delight of the Big Blue nation. But when ETSU's most famous alum Kenny Chesney sneaks into the building, Jay Bilas becomes so enamored with his soft, beach sounds that he takes off his announcing headset, mumbles something about Baylor being a sleeper to get to the Final Fourand goes on tour with Buffett.
TEXAS vs WAKE FOREST 9:35 PM
What do you get when the two most underperforming participants in a particular endeavor get together to see which can muster up just enough to even showcase a flash of their former brilliance? No, its not every Pacino/Deniro move of the past ten years, but rather is the Underachievement HEavyweight Championship Title Match when Texas plays Wake Forest. Over the course of this past season, no two teams have been more baffling and neither has made its fans groan and search out for signs of life from its coach than the Longhorns and Demon Deacons. Both teams have loads of talent, but both have played so terribly at times that even Mike Dunleavy has asked from afar, "dont you coaches do anything?"
The most egregious offender has been Texas, where Rick Barnes has definitely proven that he is the worst Top 12 program coach in America. While there is no doubt that Barnes has assembled talent by the boatload in Austin, his team has played as poorly in the last two months as any team in the Tournament and has produced an historically unprecedented waste of talent from one program in one season. There may be as many as six guys on the Texas roster who could play in the NBA and players one through eleven, they could be the most talented team in America. But they are stuck floundering around, getting blown out by mediocre teams and backing their way into the tournament on the back of a win against NIT contender North Carolina in December. Remember, Texas was ONCE #1. Now they are hideous and absent a miracle turnaround, will finish a season of disappointment like none other.
There are those that say March forgives all sins. If either of these teams can win this game and then upset Kentucky, a season of disappointment can quickly be forgotten. Both teams have been awful, but in Texas's case there has been the occasional show of life. Wake Forest has been tuned out for months. Texas wins a close one in a game that simply frustrates all who watch.
So there you have it, Notre Dame, Baylor, Kentucky and Texas. Chalk from this guy. But hey, its New Orleans and the fun will be on the streets anyway. Enjoy the games and watch out for Harry Connick on the street trying to sing you a song...he does it to all the tourists.