Here's your NCAA tournament dirty dozen primer of random news, notes, quotes, opinions and nonsense to prep you for the wildest three weeks on the American sports calendar.
1. The Biggest East
They still light candles at St. Patrick's Cathedral over the glorious March of 1985 when three Big East Catholic schools reached the Final Four – Villanova, Georgetown and St. John's. Villanova won the national championship. Memphis won the secular title that year.
The Big East is back and while it's the public schools running the show now, the chance for a similar multi-team Final Four rendezvous is strong. Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh are all No. 1 seeds. By definition they are favored to reach Detroit.
Loaded with NBA talent, great coaching and upperclassmen, these teams are going to be very difficult outs.
"Great defensive teams are going to get to a Final Four," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. "We've got a bunch of teams in the Big East that play great defense."
All three of the one seeds believe, right now, they can win the national championship. At least two other Big East squads – Villanova and Syracuse – are confident they can reach the Final Four. That's a stunning number of true national contenders coming out of one conference.
Syracuse is one of the most intriguing teams in this tournament. The Orange have incredible talent and are led by Jonny Flynn who is every bit as good, if not better, than Carolina's Ty Lawson.
SU's issue this year was consistent effort, but that appeared to go away during the marathon Big East tournament run. If the Orange can duplicate that intensity while showing they still have something left in the tank, there's a chance the Big East could field the entire Final Four.
We're not saying it's going to happen, but perhaps never before in the history of this tournament could the idea even be reasonably entertained. It would be the ultimate conference show of force.
2. Three suggestions that would make watching the tournament better
• Alternative broadcasts. Many who watch the tournament don't want to hear the drivel that these are amateur athletes engaging in an extra curricular activity or that every coach is a genius or that this is anything other than a good excuse to drink and gamble on a weekday afternoon.
With all the technology these days, couldn't we offer a broadcast for them? Can we keep score with the point spread, so at the opening tip it reads Chattanooga 34, Connecticut 0? It would save a lot of math.
Can we get handicapping at the half rather than cheap banter? If Ty Lawson isn't 100 percent, Carolina is still getting past Radford. But are they going to cover?
• Can we get a real discussion on how these teams were built? Forget the ridiculousness that Player A chose School B because he was really interested in the Hotel Management major.
How about a sideline reporter who gives it straight: The star arrived because an assistant coach delivered three working girls to his AAU coach during a tournament in Vegas and the kid's mother just had her kitchen remodeled courtesy of an agent who also represents the head coach.
• Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery sit in a studio in New York and call the final three minutes of every close game.
3. Toughest omission from the tournament?
Once again, none. This was another down season for college basketball, and if you couldn't get yourself into the NCAA tournament you blew it on multiple occasions. There weren't even 34 worthy at-large teams. All the self-serving talk by coaches about expanding the NCAA tournament should, this year at least, be replaced by contracting it.
At the very least the committee could have decided that they'd just do away with the play-in game this year and let those small schools have a real tournament experience.
Division I men's college basketball is played in 49 states, a stat that is one of the most endearing about the sport. This isn't just big city – let alone big market – pro sports. It isn't regional. Who makes the field is a constant surprise and gives just about everyone someone to root for.
Guard Ben Woodside gets stormed by a group of fans after North Dakota State's 66-64 win over Oakland in Sioux Falls, S.D., on March 10.
(AP Photo/Eric Landwehr)
New Jersey has nearly 9 million residents, yet not a single state school made the tournament. North Dakota has 640,000 residents, most of whom will be rooting on North Dakota State. Even better, NDSU made the tourney in its first attempt (it was previously a D-II powerhouse). In contrast, Northwestern has been trying to no avail for the last 71 seasons.
The field has state schools and religious institutions. They come from big cities (Los Angeles, Boston) and impossible small towns (Starkville, Stillwater). They bring pride to obscure places, who knew Iowa had a Northern? Then there's the nicknames, Purdue actually chose to be called Boilermakers?
You couldn't dream up this tournament and you can't explain it to a non-fan. Why is Gonzaga to be feared? How the heck did Kansas and all its wheat fields get so good at this sport? How can a game between Ohio State (total enrollment 53,715) and Siena (3,767) be considered fair?
That's the beauty of it. This week, if North Dakota State gets a lead on Kansas, we're all pulling for Fargo.
5. Todd Bozeman
Bozeman will tell you the biggest mistake he made as a college coach was paying a couple of his players back when he worked at Cal. The scandal got him fired. After nearly a decade out of the game, he's returned as head coach of Morgan State and this year delivered the school's first NCAA tournament appearance.
Obviously the payouts led to his near pariah status in college basketball. It was his first mistake though, not his biggest. That would be when he admitted to the NCAA exactly what he did.
The rule of thumb in college investigations, especially for the head coach, is deny until you die. Nothing is ever the head coach's fault. No one ever knows anything. If someone is claiming there was a payout, find a way to attack the accuser, blame an assistant or just call it all a lie. There are a bunch of head coaches in this tournament who've done worse than Bozeman, some have even survived their programs getting hit with major violations.
Bozeman is a religious guy. And when confronted with his mistake, he did what his faith taught him. He owned up to it and asked for forgiveness.
His God may think one thing, the NCAA the other. Rather than follow the lead of the American judicial system, which tends to offer leniency on guilty pleas, the NCAA instead buried Bozeman for being honest about his dishonesty. He had to wait eight years before anyone could even hire him as an assistant.
Now he's back and it's a great story. Know this though, for college coaches the cautionary tale of Todd Bozeman isn't "don't pay the players" it's "don't ever admit it when you're caught."
6. Five players to watch
Eric Maynor celebrates after Virginia Commonwealth defeated George Mason in the Colonial Athletic Association championship.
(AP Photo/Steve Helber)
• Eric Maynor, Virginia Commonwealth. Two years ago he torched the Duke backcourt, including a buzzer-beating, winning drive and floater. He's an NBA talent despite being undersized (6-foot-2, 170 pounds). He gets UCLA this time and not to raise expectations too high, but this is your best Stephen Curry bet of the tourney. Just like Curry, he's a kid from North Carolina big schools passed on.
• Hasheem Thabeet, Connecticut. Great, traditional big men are hard to find in college basketball, but the Huskies' 7-3 shot blocking machine is a throwback. There's just nothing else like him and that gives the Huskies a major advantage.
• Chief Kickingstallionsims. He's a 7-1 reserve on Alabama State. He won't dominate the tournament. He will have the best name though.
• Blake Griffin, Oklahoma. The best part of the Sooners center isn't just that he's a great scorer who takes pride in his defense and can almost single-handedly will OU to the Final Four. It's the way he plays. He loves not just knocking other players to the floor but getting knocked down himself. He's a wrecking ball inside who changes his expression so rarely that Texas Tech coach Pat Knight dubbed him "The Terminator."
• James Harden, Arizona State. Every once in a while a singular talent really heats up and delivers a Final Four run. Think Dwyane Wade, T.J. Ford, Sean Elliott, etc. Harden might be that kind of guy. The 6-5, bearded swingman averaged 20 points, five rebounds and four assists a game and the L.A. native has just the personality to turn up on the big stage.
7. The return of the vets
One-and-done freshman have greatly impacted, if not dominated the last few NCAA tournaments. From Ohio State's triumvirate from the same AAU program – Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Daquan Cook – to Memphis' Derrick Rose, it's been talent not necessarily experience that has delivered.
This year, due to a weak freshman class, its elder statesmen, well, at least sophomores who should be the key players. It's like a retro tournament.
8. The Streaks
Arizona's Jordan Hill goes up for a dunk against Arizona State during the Pac-10 tournament.
(Harry How/Getty Images)
For the second consecutive year the Arizona Wildcats were able to shake off some fading fortunes and maintain their current NCAA tournament appearance streak with one of the final at-large bids.
In 1983, Lute Olson arrived in Tucson, took over a horrible program and promptly led it to 23 consecutive tournaments. Last year Lute took a leave of absence and UA made it 24. This year it was 25 in a decision that shocked some of the bracket prediction guys.
Arizona Republic headline: "Cats' tourney chances about nil"
The program is a 12 seed, under NCAA investigation and still needs to hire a permanent coach, so the future, both near and far, may not be great. However, for one more March, Arizona is in. The chance to eventually pass North Carolina's all-time streak of 27 remains alive.
• On the other hand, you'll find no Kentucky Wildcats for the first time since 1991. Tubby Smith's Minnesota Golden Gophers are in the event though.
• And finally, for the first time since 1974, a Final Four game broadcast will not include Billy Packer as color commentator. He left CBS to pursue other opportunities and will be replaced by Clark Kellogg.
9. The Ultimate Wild Card
The Final Four will be held at Detroit's Ford Field and will employ a new court setup. Rather than being pushed to one side of the stadium, the playing surface will be in the middle of the football field, raised up like a stage and surrounded by seats.
So vast are the stands that the NCAA is giving out an approximate capacity of 71,000, which will be the most ever for a Final Four. Back in 2003, Kentucky and Michigan State played at Ford Field in front of a record crowd of 78,129.
There's been a longtime debate about what would happen if a Final Four team had some kind of home-court advantage. In this case, Michigan State, a No. 2 seed in the Midwest Regional, could have a big one.
Due to the nation's economy and the general appeal of visiting Detroit, it's expected that a greater than normal amount of fans in attendance will be locals. If Tom Izzo's club is in the Final Four, just over an hour drive from campus and in a city with hundreds of thousands of alums, the place will be flooded with green. This could change all predictions.
Of course, it's worth noting, that in the 2003 game Kentucky won.
10. The Awards
• Best Coach: Ben Howland, UCLA
(Last year's choice: Ben Howland)
• Best Mid-Major Coach: Keith Dambrot, Akron (proving he's more than just LeBron James' high school coach)
(Last year's choice: Bob McKillop, Davidson)
• Coach I'm Rooting For: Brad Greenberg, Radford, my former coworker at the immortal HoopsTV.com.
(Not awarded last year)
• Best Chant: Morehead State, "More Head"
(Last year's choice: Austin Peay, "Let's Go Peay")
• Funniest CBS Abbreviation: Northern Iowa (No Iowa)
Utah State mascot Big Blue (R) battles New Mexico State mascot Pistol Pete during a timeout.
(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
(Not awarded last year)
• Best School: Cornell
(Last year's choice: Stanford, I was kissing up to the boss.)
• Toughest Mascot (if there was a fight, who would win?): Utah State Big Blue, anyone willing to rip the mustache off New Mexico State's Pistol Pete is one ornery dude.
(Last year's choice: Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils. They'd steal your soul.)
• Meekest Mascot: Chattanooga Mocs (short for Moccasins, which many think originally came from the nearby Moccasin bend of the Tennessee River.)
(Last year's choice: Austin Peay Governors.)
• Toughest Coach (if there was a fight, which coach would win?)
The contenders: Bruce Pearl (ripped), Mike Krzyzewski (West Point grad), Bob Huggins (brawler), Tom Izzo (scrapper)
Winner: Lewis Jackson, Alabama State (Chief Kickingstallionsims has got his back.)
(Last year's choice: Fang Mitchell, Coppin State. You want to fight a dude from Baltimore named Fang?)
11. Feeling the heat
This isn't to say Roy Williams is going to get fired if the Tar Heels don't win the national title. He could lose in the first round and still be a legend in Chapel Hill. However, Carolina is in a no-lose situation – and not in a good way. They actually can't lose and feel all that great about the season.
The Heels bowed to Kansas in last year's Final Four, thanks mostly to the Jayhawks jumping out to a 40-12 lead. Williams is an emotional coach and he spent the entire run up to that game discussing his conflicted feelings about coaching against his former school. He cared way too much about jilted Jayhawk fans.
When a Final Four team falls behind by 28 points in the first half, it's fair to say it wasn't ready to play. Considering the circumstances, you could extrapolate that Williams wasn't ready to coach and thus didn't get his team ready to play.
That can be forgotten this year, though. Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and others returned for another season to win the national title. Once there was talk of an undefeated season.
At this point, six more wins would do it. These guys didn't come back just to make a Final Four. If they don't clip the nets, expect epic tears from Williams.
So it's everything or nothing for Carolina. That's pressure.
12. The Picks
The Final Four is: UConn, Syracuse, Pitt and Michigan State.
Final: Connecticut over Syracuse, 127-117 (six overtimes)