Sixty-five teams, three weeks, endless empty brackets and countless hours watching all the action. So you need a primer.
Here are the Sweet 16 things you need to know as the NCAA tournament gets set to tip off.
1. Repeat Gators
Since the John Wooden era ended at UCLA in the mid-1970s, only once has a team repeated as national champions – Duke in 1991 and 1992. There have been some close calls – Georgetown reached the finals in 1985, Arkansas in 1995 and Kentucky even went to overtime in the title game in 1997.
But for the most part, college basketball has been the land of the no-peat. And with the trend of top college players making immediate leaps to the NBA, there was a school of thought that it might never happen again.
Enter the Florida Gators, the defending champions with all five starters back and, after bulldozing the SEC tournament, the No. 1 seed overall. They even have, in the Midwest Region, what appears to be a favorable bracket.
Maybe most importantly, they appear to have their swagger back – a combination of confidence from great team play since a mid-February mini-swoon and a chip on their shoulder from perceived doubters (actually, there aren't many).
"I think it's important for us to have a swagger, but stay humble and realize [to] not take anything for granted," said Joakim Noah, the MVP of last year's Final Four.
This is why everyone came back. Noah himself has cost himself between five and 10 spots in the NBA draft by returning, as a deeper talent pool materialized and scouts concluded he has deficiencies in creating his own offense. Teammate Al Horford may wind up selected ahead of him now.
But Noah said he doesn't care. That's the sacrifice he was willing to make to repeat as a national champion. If he can, Florida really will go down in history. And that's something money can't buy.
2. The four most important players in the tournament
(There may be better players out there, but none are so valuable to their team's fortunes.)
Kevin Durant, Texas – The best player in the country and arguably the most game-breaking talent in college hoops since Kevin Garnett started the preps-to-pros trend in 1995. Durant makes Texas capable of beating anyone at any time. Expect him to be even better now that he is freed of Big 12 defenses that knew his game well.
Greg Oden, Ohio State – The other super-freshman, the 7-footer changes the game at both ends of the court and is a nightmare matchup for just about everyone. As an offseason wrist injury has healed, his offense has begun catching up with his defense. If Oden plays his best basketball, he can anchor the Buckeyes to the national title. But the Buckeyes won't survive without his best.
A.J. Graves, Butler – When the junior was raining down three-pointers early this season (he had eight against Notre Dame), the Bulldogs beat the Irish, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga to win the Preseason NIT. Butler started the season 23-2. But in Butler's last eight games, the guard has tired and made just 15 of 59 threes (25.4 percent) and Butler went 4-4. If the fifth-seeded Bulldogs are going to make noise now, Graves has to return to form.
Darren Collison, UCLA – Ben Howland's Bruins win with a deliberate, disciplined style and a commitment to defense. They got to the national title game last year by simply wearing teams out and taking care of the basketball. To do that this year, they have to have stellar play from their point guard, a player who makes UCLA a different team when he's on his game.
3. Cinderellas (13 seed or worse that are capable of an upset)
Wright State (vs. Pitt) – The Raiders finished the season 23-9, but they started 3-5 as they adjusted to new coach Brad Brownell. Since Christmas, this has been one of the hottest teams in the country. Wright State finished by winning 12 of its final 13 games, including two over Butler, and both the Horizon League regular season and tournament championships. This team is much better than a No. 14 seed.
Davidson (vs. Maryland) – Bob McKillop is as good of an X's and O's coach as there is in America. With a 29-4 club, this may be his best team at the small, academically competitive North Carolina school, which means it will play smart, deliberate and quite efficiently.
Holy Cross (vs. Southern Illinois) – The past two years the Patriot League champion (Bucknell) has won first-round games over Kansas and Arkansas. This year, it is Holy Cross' turn to try to make some noise. The Crusaders can shoot, take care of the ball and dictate tempo behind the excellent coaching of Ralph Willard.
Oral Roberts (vs. Washington State) – ORU is back for the second straight year. Coached by Eddie Sutton's son Scott, the Eagles often boast some serious offense. Not only does their campus have a 24-hour prayer center going for it, but this team also beat Kansas in Lawrence earlier this year. If they can do that, they can beat anyone on a given night.
4. This year's George Mason?
There is a reason George Mason was such a big deal last year. Teams like that don't happen every decade (or three decades), let alone every year. So don't count on an unheralded team making the Final Four. But, for argument's sake:
Nevada – The Wolfpack were ranked No. 10 in the nation last week and were given a 7 seed. They'll enter most games with the best player on the court, All-American big man Nick Fazekas.
Virginia Commonwealth – Champions of George Mason's league (Colonial), the Rams went 27-6, have an unreal guard in Eric Maynor and are coached by Anthony Grant, who just a year ago was an assistant on national champion Florida.
Winthrop – The Eagles enter the tournament 28-4 with a 17-game win streak and a national ranking for the first time ever. They boast size, talent and star coach Gregg Marshall. This is their third consecutive NCAA bid and seventh in nine years. But they never have won a game, so they have experience yet hunger. Oh, and the only teams to beat them this year – North Carolina, Texas A&M, Wisconsin (in overtime) and Maryland.
5. Counting its blessings: Arkansas
The recent trends in college basketball – scholarship limitations, defections to the NBA, increased budgets and commitment at the mid-major level – point toward a widening parity in the game. Results on the court, where upsets are no longer so upsetting and just last year George Mason stormed to the Final Four, speak to this.
So what does the NCAA tournament selection committee do? It hands out the fewest at-large bids to mid-major programs (six) in years. It was a move only Billy Packer could love.
This was lucky for Arkansas, which got in despite owning one of the weakest resumes of an at-large selection in recent memory. The Hogs (21-13) had a losing SEC record (7-9) despite playing in the weak West. To advance to the SEC finals, all Arkansas had to do was beat South Carolina, Vandy and Mississippi State, which isn't exactly a murderers' row.
Arkansas had just four victories against the tournament field (Oral Roberts, Southern Illinois and Vanderbilt twice). Never would you think beating Vandy twice would be enough to get a team into the NCAA field.
6. Then again, if you think that's bad …
Do you remember the incredible finish Saturday when Miami (Ohio) hit a buzzer-beating, bank-shot three to win the Mid-American Conference's automatic bid? The team it beat was Akron, which won the MAC's East Division title, went 26-7, had an RPI of 67 and didn't even get a bid to the NIT.
Akron was just the third team to ever win 26 games and not get into the NCAAs. Not that anyone was arguing for the NCAAs. But not even the NIT? Even with a RPI better than 13 other selected teams?
I know everyone says no one cares about the NIT, but I thought that was a figurative statement, not literal.
Of course, the NIT was bought by the NCAA a few years back, so I guess we should have expected it to go to pot. The selection committee is stocked with the oldest boys' network you could ever dream up – C.M. Newton, Dean Smith, Gene Keady – so maybe everyone slept through the meetings.
If NIT at-large bids are just going to be handed out to schools with political connections to a committee that isn't paying attention, then the entire tournament should just be disbanded.
7. Best nicknames
Southern Illinois Salukis (Egyptian hunting dog)
Kansas Jayhawks (a fictional bird, assuring the NCAA's politically correct set never can find any offended Jayhawks demanding a new name)
North Texas Mean Green
8. The Curse of the Shark?
UNLV advanced to four Final Fours and won the 1990 national title under Jerry Tarkanian but hasn't won a single NCAA tournament game since they ran him out after the 1991-92 season. So 15 years later, with Tarkanian a regular at Lon Kruger's practices and home games (and likely in the stands for the game against Georgia Tech), does the streak of futility end? As a seven seed, UNLV technically is the favorite here.
9. What to make of hoops in the South?
So this is a risky theory to put out there – history says I'll be proven an idiot – but I think both the ACC and SEC were far below average this season. Other than Florida and North Carolina, there isn't a great team in either league. There may not even be a good one.
When picking a tournament, sometimes you need underlying beliefs to guide you. Mine is that other than UF and UNC, no team from either conference will advance to the second weekend.
After the Gators, the next best teams in the SEC were sluggish Kentucky and inconsistent Tennessee and Vanderbilt. I'm not even mentioning Arkansas. Even in a league that is historically top heavy (usually with UK at the top), this wasn't good.
The ACC got seven bids, but six of the teams were all over the place. There is no way to know what you are getting from Maryland, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Duke just isn't that good. Georgia Tech has a world of talent that may be finally meshing, but you never know. Boston College was better before suspensions gutted the roster. The fact that North Carolina State almost won the conference tournament is telling.
If any of the SEC or ACC teams were really good, they would have separated from the mediocre pack the way UF and UNC did. So I am boldly predicting an ugly run from the two leagues that normally deliver in March.
10. Is Memphis for real?
The Tigers, enjoying a 22-game win streak, are seeded second in the South. But due to their membership in the weak Conference USA, they've played just one good team (a victory at Gonzaga) since losing at Arizona in December. They have three victories against the tourney field (Kentucky, Gonzaga and 16 seed Jackson State). So is this a great team despite the weak schedule or a product of the weak schedule?
Know this: John Calipari's team is incredibly athletic and plays its system extremely well. Cal hasn't stopped attracting top recruits despite the C-USA tag. So underestimate them at your own risk.
11. What about Oregon?
Under coach Ernie Kent, the Ducks have been impossible to predict. One season they are a title contender, the next a total bust. Oregon always seems to have talent, but it hasn't always had success. In fact, there was plenty of speculation that Kent would be fired after this season.
Instead, what a season. Sort of. In classic Kent fashion, this team has been all over the place.
With a starting five all averaging double figures – Aaron Brooks, Bryce Taylor, Tajuan Porter, Malik Hairston and Maarty Leunen – the Ducks have breathtaking ability. But they started February with five losses in six games. Of course, they just had a legendary run through the Pac-10 tournament, capped by a near perfect game (Taylor didn't miss a shot in scoring 32 points) against Southern California in the final.
If Oregon plays like that, it can win the national title. If it plays like early February, the Sweet 16 would be a reach. And no one, not even Kent, knows which is coming.
12. Annual Arizona
Lute Olson took over a four-win Arizona team in Tucson in 1983 and had them in the NCAA tournament by his second season. The Wildcats haven't missed it since. This is Olson's 23rd consecutive NCAA appearance, tying him for longest of all time with North Carolina's Dean Smith.
But this hasn't been a team to celebrate. This is one of the 72-year-old's most frustrating groups to coach. He thought he had the talent to win a national championship, but the Cats have lacked consistency and toughness and wound up 20-10. Still, if they can get by Purdue, they have the athletes to be dangerous against Florida in Round 2.
13. Geographically Speaking
- Texas A&M didn't get any favors by having to travel to Lexington, Ky., where the Aggies may match up with Louisville in the second round. Of course, if they win, they head to San Antonio for the regionals, where they'd enjoy a significant home-court advantage.
- Then again, while Louisville is just 88 miles from Lexington, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino is anything but popular in the city where he once coached the University of Kentucky.
- Toss in Xavier from just up the road in Cincinnati and Ohio State also playing at Rupp Arena, and this will be the spot for ticket brokers.
- UCLA can reach the Final Four without leaving the state of California. The Bruins' first two games would be in Sacramento; two wins would move them into the regionals in San Jose.
- In Winston-Salem, Texas Tech coach Bob Knight will work in front of what should be an overwhelmingly pro-North Carolina crowd, many of whom were not all that excited when the General passed Dean Smith as college hoops' winningest coach earlier this season.
- Johnny "Bullet" Jones was a high school and college legend in the state of Louisiana (he played on LSU's 1981 Final Four team). Now as a coach, he brings his North Texas team to New Orleans for a matchup with Memphis, a school he served as interim coach during the 1999-2000 season.
14. The State of Michigan
Crean is considered the heir apparent to the State program when Izzo eventually moves on – either to retirement or the NBA. But there is nothing imminent in East Lansing. There might be, however, in Ann Arbor, where Michigan coach Tommy Amaker is overdue to get fired.
The guy plenty of Michigan fans would love to see replace Amaker? Crean, who wouldn't just be a coach capable of leading the Wolverines back to national championship contention but one who would take a preemptive strike at its archrival up the road.
Izzo-Crean isn't the only potential matchup. UCLA and Pitt (Ben Howland and former assistant Jamie Dixon) could meet up in the Sweet Sixteen. Illinois coach Bruce Weber could coach not just against his former school, Southern Illinois, but against former assistant Chris Lowery. Ironically, SIU is higher seeded.
Then there is the interesting case of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. The Huskies didn't make the NCAA tournament, but four of Calhoun's former assistants Karl Hobbs (George Washington), Howie Dickenman (Central Connecticut State), Dave Leitao (Virginia) and Glen Miller (Penn) did.
16. The Picks
Disregard what you hear on television. In 2006, CBS' Clark Kellogg picked all four No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four. The actual seeds were (2) UCLA, (4) LSU, (11) George Mason and (3) Florida. This year, Clark picked three No. 1s and a No. 2.
Of course, the top seeds look good now. That's why they are the top seeds. Here are my fearless selections (which, in hindsight, may not be fearless enough):
South: (3) Texas A&M over (1) Ohio State – I don't like the fact Ohio State hasn't lost in forever. Acie Law IV is clutch for this defensive-minded team.
East: (4) Texas over (2) Georgetown – As big and balanced as the Hoyas are, they can't win a shootout, and those are the only kinds of games Kevin Durant plays.
Midwest: (1) Florida over (6) Notre Dame – The Irish can really shoot, and this is a weak region. But if Florida can get by Arizona in the second round, no one is talented enough to stop them.
West: (2) UCLA over (1) Kansas – Kansas has a habit of falling way behind. You can't catch up on the Bruin defense.
Final Four: UCLA over Florida, Texas A&M over Texas
Championship: UCLA – String up banner No. 12 at Pauley Pavilion as Ben Howland's team delivers.