It’s amazing how different college basketball’s tournament is from its pro hoops version.  While the NCAA Tournament is a single elimination sprint–most of which is squeezed in over three weekends–the NBA’s four round marathon stretches out over three months.  Where every little variable comes into play during the Big Dance…the slow waltz usually comes down to talent and focus.  Instead of having to prepare for a team’s zone press or a player you’ve never seen on the floor, teams get opponents they’ve met at least twice during the regular season up to seven straight times.  Sometimes schemes and wrinkles do come into play…but more often than not talent wins out.

 

The Wizards are trying to take a 2-0 series lead over Chicago this evening.  They haven’t led in any series 2-0 since 1982 when first round series were best of three…and haven’t led 2-0 in a best of seven series lead since 1975 (Eastern Conference Finals against Boston–they’d win 4-2 before getting swept by Golden State in the NBA Finals).  Coach Randy Wittman was a freshman at Indianapolis Ben Davis High School that spring…

 

“Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence”.  Let the record show the Wizards rallied from a 2-0 deficit to the Bulls in the 2005 first round (oh the days of Gilbert Arenas)…but that was after Chicago won games one and two in the windy city.  Rarely does a team bounce back after starting 0-2 at home.  While it’s unlikely Nene will duplicate his 24 points and 8 rebounds from Game 1…Bradley Beal and John Wall will likely shoot better than a combined 7-for-25.  Can they continue to dominate defensively (held Bulls to 42%FG, 5-20 from 3 pt range)?  The dance continues against a coach respected for being a master tactician in Tom Thibodeau (no truth to the rumor he switches spelling his name to “Thom Tibodeau” after losses to gain an edge).

 

 

April is “anomaly or trend” month in baseball- because there are 162 games in a regular season a team’s highs and lows are always amplified in the first month.  It’s natural because as opposed to a hot streak or slump in July or August, there’s no previous body of work that season to use as a base.  Tyler Clippard’s less than ideal April saw the setup man allow 4 runs in the 8th inning of Monday’s loss to the Angels.  He’s been solid in that role before and the idea is not to panic this early…but when does an occurance become a trend?  Same case with Ian Desmond–the shortstop leads the majors in errors at his position (9 in 20 games) and committed two in the 8th last night (the first one jumpstarting the 4-run inning for the Angels).  Do you give Desmond a day off to clear his head?  Do you move Drew Storen into the 8th inning role to give the bullpen another late option?  Right now Manager Matt Williams is sticking with both in their current roles… and just like his aggressive base running has cost the team in some short-term situations, one has to buy into the longterm focus.

 

Boston Stronger– the city ran its annual Marathon yesterday…and for the first time since 1983 an American won.  Forgive me for completely forgetting Greg Meyer…but I thought Alberto Salazar was the last US runner to win in Beantown.  Meb Keflezighi finished first while Kenyan Rita Jeptoo set a women’s course record.  Clarksville, Maryland resident Tatyana McFadden won the women’s wheelchair division–on her birthday.  But the biggest winner was a city trying to heal itself one year after it was turned upside-down.  Patriot’s Day celebrates not just the birth of a nation but how a group of people banded together to claim their home–and it was nice to see the city of Boston stand proud once again.

Say what you will about the Washington Nationals breaking out the brooms against everybody not wearing an A on their cap– they’re simply tenants in the subdivision currently run by the landlords known as the Atlanta Braves.  The Nats may very well be the team to beat for the second straight season… but the Braves are the team that’s beating them.  The pounding over the first two weekends of the 2014 season (losing 5 of 6 by the composite score of 32-16) reminds the DC faithful that they remain the bug and Atlanta remains the windshield of the NL East.

The preseason favorites were outscored (allowing 6+ runs in four of the six games), shut down (held to 1 or 2 runs in four of the six games), squeaked by (a 7-6  extra inning loss Friday) or blown out (a 10-2 thumping Sunday).  Leadoff hitter Denard Span went 1 for 15 against Braves pitching before missing two games with a concussion…and staff ace Stephen Strasburg posted a 6.23 ERA against Atlanta’s lineup that currently ranks 16th in hitting and 22nd in runs scored.  These games have been lost thanks in part to butchered base running (on multiple counts)…instant replay (Ian Desmond’s inside the park home run that became a double)…and faulty fielding (3 errors the first weekend…7 more in the second).  They’ve had one starter get to the seventh inning (Taylor Jordan) in six games…and have hit .164 with runners in scoring position (stranding 7.5 runners a game) against their nemesis to the south.  Tough to find any silver lining in these hurricane clouds.

The good news is they won’t see the Braves for over two months (June 19-22 they host the NL East leaders)…while the bad news is that this bunch will be banged up for some time.  Ryan Zimmerman (broken thumb, 4-6 weeks) joins Wilson Ramos on the disabled list while Denard Span (concussion) and Scott Hairston (sore knee) missed time this past weekend.  So let them get fat against the Marlins…and good luck when St Louis comes to town.  Because even though there are only 19 games against the Braves this year, the Nationals will be chasing Atlanta even if they pass them.

 

Capitals Close Shop– for the first time since 2007… there will be no postseason hockey in the district.  Now this isn’t like most six-year playoff runs:  the Caps never were able to get past the second round/conference semifinal round–twice losing in seven games and the other time getting swept.  Last May’s first round stumble to the NY Rangers (in one of the worst game seven efforts ever-next to the collapse against Pittsburgh in 2009) was the team’s fourth game seven loss at home during the current “run”.  Or should I say stagger.  Alex Ovechkin’s chase of 50 goals while boasting the worst plus-minus in the league was mind-boggling.  Hands-down the the most hollow DC-area stat since Bruce Smith notched the career sack record (at least the Caps didn’t sell Ovie coins).  Will GM George McPhee and/or coach Adam Oates survive the April evaluations?  This team doesn’t need new leadership as much as it needs quality defensemen.  The blue line was a sore spot the entire season…and for a team that has a preponderance of potential line combinations the fact that the goaltender du jour didn’t have consistent quality in front of him can’t be ignored.

 

Masters remains a “tradition unlike any other”.  Especially with Jim Nantz’s “overused catchphrase unlike any other”.  Was anyone else hoping for Jimmy Walker to make a run at the green jacket just to see if Nantz would be tempted to say “Dy-no-mite”?  As if he would.  Veteran Bubba Watson outdueled 20-year old Jordan Spieth (who shined for the first two rounds last June at the AT&T National) for his second green jacket in three years.  What next?  We often project the run a major champion will have (Mark O’Meara in 1998, Padraig Harrington in 2007-08).  But often they end up like Jim Furyk…still searching for their second major almost to the point that we forget their first.  Watson’s won just four PGA tournaments in his pro career.  Same as José María Olazábal when he won at Augusta National in 1994 and ’99.  Including his run at the Masters, Bubba has just four top ten finishes in Majors (Masters wins in 2012 & 14, 2nd PGA 2010, T5 US Open 2007).  Just like Sandy Lyle.  Will Spieth become the next great thing?  Sergio Garcia finished second in a major at 19–and we’re still waiting on the now 34-year old.  Unfortunately the mixed cocktail of no Tiger, Phil missing the cut and sunny skies on the east coast resulted in the lowest TV ratings in a decade.  Just like the NBA never really got ready for the post-Jordan boom…golf doesn’t have that next big magnet that brings in non-golf fans.  But on the bright side…Bubba celebrated his Masters win by eating at Waffle House and tweeted a picture with the hashtag “hashbrowns”.  Now those are traditions unlike any other.

 

What a crazy couple of weeks in Washington.  A perennial doormat punches its playoff ticket…while a perennial contender plays its way towards extra golf.  A baseball sweep reminds us that the first week is meaningless-except when it is– and a football signing reminds us that while a certain football team tries to move beyond the big offseason splash, they’re only a few days away from shouting “CANNONBALL!”.  Brackets are burned before a local team blazes its way to the Final Four.  And in the middle of it all, the Mother we’ve been waiting to meet meets her maker.  Where to begin?

 

When I left you last, I was focusing on my “Bold, Fold, and Gold” (patent pending) picks.  Bold Picks Providence, NC State, Nebraska and Ohio State failed to get to the weekend.  Fold Picks VCU, Oklahoma and Villanova underperformed their seed while Michigan lost in the regional finals.  And Gold Selections Kansas & Duke didn’t survive the first weekend…while Michigan State came up short and Wisconsin advanced.  Alma Mater Update– I was bummed to see Syracuse come up short in the round of 32…but after seeing them play the way they had since early February I wasn’t surprised in the least.  So now we have the pre-tournament favorite (Florida), a team that finally got its act together after underachieving for far too long (Kentucky), and two hardscrabble teams that flew in under the radar (Wisconsin by the vanilla-ness of their image as a buzz-cut wearing boring bunch and UConn by scraping together three consecutive upsets).  My fear is Kentucky wins and the press goes back to kissing the feet of John Calipari…because talent trumps all the frills and winners write history.  I’m hoping for Florida-Wisconsin…and the usual “spontaneous cliched final call”.

Speaking of Final Fours…how did this Maryland team get there?  Wasn’t this the bunch that struggled with just one alpha dog in Alyssa Thomas carrying too much of the burden?  Wasn’t this the team that lost their ACC Quarterfinal game and came undone on the road repeatedly?  Wasn’t this a team directed by a freshman point guard that would most assuredly be hitting the wall given the minutes she’s had to play this winter?  Au contraire– do not underestimate coach Brenda Frese when she has two weeks to get her team back in gear after a rough couple of months.  Don’t underestimate the power of Alyssa Thomas–a swiss army-knife of a player that allows her team to go big and small often on the same possession.  And don’t think that just like Kentucky can jell down the stretch after five months playing together, the freshman three-pack of Lexie Brown, Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough won’t start playing like upperclassmen.  The win over top seed Tennessee was impressive, but beating Louisville on their home court was absolutely huge.  THAT JUST DOES NOT HAPPEN.  Credit quick starts in both games…and with unbeaten Notre Dame on the horizon the Terps know that a slow start against the Fighting Irish in the regular season cost them in the long run that night.

The Maryland women are in the Final Four for the first time since 2006… while the Washington Wizards are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008.  Break out the banners!  This for a franchise that hadn’t even been over .500 after November since…well, quite some time.  Coach Randy Wittman’s meshed together a hungry group that at its best does the little things–and with the necessary intensity.  And they’re doing this with minimal contributions from their first round pick from last June–although once Otto Porter gets healthy, he should be a factor in the future.  Two moves that made the season–sending Emeka Okafor to Phoenix for Marcin Gortat (who would have thought his game and beard would have held up in DC?);  and signing Drew Gooden off the scrap heap (providing quality minutes once Nene got hurt).  Can they dream of a #6 seed and a first round upset?

While the Wizards are on the upswing, the Capitals are collapsing.  Four straight losses aren’t helping…and Alex Ovechkin going point-less in even-strength situations during the month of March was deadly.  Years of getting fat late in the season against Southleast Division competition may be coming back to haunt the team this April.  For years I’ve compared the Caps to the Cherry Blossoms– they spring to life in late March and early April before becoming an afterthought in May.  Evidently the winter weather in DC took a different tone on the ice.

Deja Vu may be in play for the Nationals:  the team swept its opening series with the New York Mets– just like last year when they broomed Miami.  Unfortunately 2013 season did not adopt the “most impressive first series gets a bye into October” rule…and a rude awakening was just around the corner:  beginning with a rough weekend in Cincinnati and a home sweep by Atlanta.  The first-place Nats play the Braves a little earlier this year– as in the home opener.  Will new manager Matt Williams make the right lineup and relief decisions?  Tanner Roark was the right move in a spot-start today…but it’s a long season.  159 more…

Redskinsanity– Desean Jackson is a Redskin.  The team adds another major weapon for coach Jay Gruden–and in theory this is not a bad move.  It’s only a three year deal.  Jackson’s 27…and has more than a few productive years left.  Gruden and RGIII will find ways to get him the ball in the right spot…and if he isn’t racking up big catches it’s because he’s drawing extra coverage that’s not on Pierre Garcon.  This will be the move that puts a team just one year removed from the playoffs back into the postseason.  The defense and special teams will need all the bailing out this fall-and this lightning rod is exactly what you need.  But they’ve taken Eagle castoffs before…and Jeremiah Trotter and Donovan McNabb weren’t difference-makers here.  There’s the gang thing.  And the uneasiness that now accompanies every free agent move made by the Redskins.  Call it Albert Haynesworth’s shadow…

How I Met Your Mother wrapped up a nine-year run on CBS with a divisive series finale that had many long-time viewers up in arms.  In reality, it was a show that had probably been on the air two or three years too long…and I’m glad to have closure.  Did we need to spend an entire season on one wedding weekend when the marriage would come undone 15 minutes into the season finale?  Did we need to send a character on a roadtrip that went nowhere quickly because the actor playing him was busy shooting a movie?  Did we need to kill off the very mother we were searching for the entire time?  Did viewers need to edit together a “new ending” that wrapped up on the train platform or start an online petition?  It’s tough to stick a landing in a series finale.  M*A*S*H broke the mold in the manner that there was finality…but not every show is about a war (or conflict…or even a police action).  I thought the last season was a little bit uneven from multiple Billy Zabka sightings to further Fonzification of Barney (I won’t even mention how they turned him back into the heel he once was only to redeem him with a daughter all in ten minutes of screen time).  I heard they had to trim the final episode by 18 minutes…I’m sure the jumpiness of the timeline was made worse because of that.  It’s too bad they couldn’t have fleshed out the whole story…because for whatever strengths and weaknesses HIMYM had, it was about storytelling.  And the ending felt rushed.  But it was a fun place to visit on Mondays…and a decent group of characters to enjoy watching from the next booth at MacClaren’s.

 

 

One never knows what the watershed is until one is far beyond it.  The spark is just a spark until a long time later you recognize the brush-fire.  How did the NCAA Tournament get here?  Was it President Clinton rooting his Arkansas team to the title in ’94?  Elliott Gould at the ’76 Oscars saying “Indiana 86-68″ after his co-presenter said “the winner is”?  Much like the day I turned around at a Super Bowl Party and it was a group of men and women who weren’t football fans getting into the game, there was a moment when the NCAA Tournament turned from a basketball fan’s dream to an American event.  Everybody does a bracket– including the President.  Casual fans take half days to catch the Thursday and Friday games–not as much to watch basketball to be a part of the moment.  To participate in a happening.

The NCAA Tournament provides 32 games over a 40 hour span… followed by 16 more over the next two days.  I’m not a fan of the late Sunday games, but still…the pure volume of games means you only need a few upsets and a few fantastic finishes to make these two days “the best ever!” on the sports calendar.  Will I help you pick all 63 games?  No.  (Yes, I still refuse to count the “First Four” in the grand scheme of things–just like I refuse to call Round of 32 the “Second Round”.  I also recognize that probably means I’m turning into the old man yelling at the First Four and Second Round to get off his lawn).

Time for the time-honored (since 2007 at least) tradition of Bold, Fold and Gold picks for each region…:

Bold as in which team advances a beyond its seed-perhaps even turning the bracket upside down?  Think Wichita State or Florida Gulf Coast last year…

Fold as in which favorite flames out?  Think Duke and Missouri as #2 seeds who lost to #15′s two years ago…or Georgetown melting last March.

And Gold as in who’s headed to Arlington (excuse me, NORTH TEXAS) for the Final Four?

EAST–  Virginia is the #1 seed for the first time since the Ralph Sampson era…but the last time the Cavaliers reached the Final Four they did so the year after Sampson graduated as a #7 seed.  They became the first team to reach the Final Four after losing its conference tournament opener–much like #2 Villanova did in the Big East Quarterfinals.  Not a good sign for the Wildcats…but does anybody notice Nova or the Wahoos?  Everybody is picking Michigan State.  As they should.  Tom Izzo traditionally gets his team to overperform its seed…or at least get to the second weekend (11 of the last 16 years).

Bold–it’s tough to root for Harvard…even though an upset of Cincinnati would cause Bearcats coach Mick Cronin’s head to explode (you can see his neck change color sometimes).  #11 Providence is led by Bryce Cotton (21ppg and 6apg) and the Friars’ only losses since Valentines Day came against Villanova and at Creighton.  Plus…they’re playing a North Carolina team that suffers major hoops ADD.

Fold–  I’m not sold on Villanova.  I know they won 28 games and took the regular season title in the “New Big East”…which was more “Archie Bunker’s Place” than “What’s Happening Now”–but still a shell of the original (does this make the American Athletic Conference of America “The Jeffersons” or “Good Times”?)…but got blown out twice by Creighton and will play either a former Big East foe in UConn (my buddy “UConn James” is back after a year brief absence) or a Philly foe in St. Joe’s in the round of 32 (two tough teams that won’t be intimidated by the Wildcats).

Gold– have I mentioned everybody’s taking Michigan State?  The same Spartan team that lost 4 of 6 to finish the regular season (including a home loss to Illinois).   The same Spartan team where every four-year senior has played in at least one Final Four since Tom Izzo took over.  Have I mentioned I’m on the bandwagon as well?

 

SOUTH– Overall #1 seed Florida faces Albany in the first round Thursday…couldn’t they have given the Great Danes another day to get from Dayton to Orlando?  And can you root against a school who’s mascot looks like a mean Scooby Doo?  If there’s a “phantom” that shows up at the arena, I’m guessing it’s really the janitor who learned there’s a diamond mine on the property and wanted to scare the owners into selling.  Kansas may be without Joel Embiid…and Syracuse may still be missing its offense.  Seriously, if you know where the Orange half-court offense is…please respond with an email ASAP.

BoldOhio State has the most annoying player in the tournament Aaron Craft.  I’m surprised he didn’t attend Duke.  The Buckeyes rallied from 18 down to win their Big Ten Quarterfinal…has the short Columbus-Buffalo commute (now that wakes up the echoes for Bluejackets-Sabres like nothing else) and potentially plays a shaky Syracuse team that might be bounced the first day of the Tournament.

FoldVCU faces a Stephen F. Austin squad that’s on fire…and also has to play UCLA in San Diego.  Somehow I’m not completely confident in the Rams…despite their recent success in the tournament.  And any Atlantic 10 losses will give Coach K cause to be smug during a press conference…what’s a tournament without a little bit of that?

GoldKansas played the toughest non-conference season and then went on to win the toughest conference.  Despite getting bounced in the Big 12 tournament, the Jayhawks will be playing in nearby St. Louis the first weekend.  That’ll give Embiid enough time to embed himselfe back in the rotation for a jaw-dropping victory over Florida.

 

MIDWEST– Wichita State enters the tournament unbeaten but not unquestioned.  The Missouri Valley Conference was even lighter this year after the loss of Creighton to the Big East.  And what is it with flashy #4 seeds this year?  Defending Champ Louisville enters the Big Dance on a big roll.  Maryland moment–former Terp Ashton Pankey plays for #13 seed Manhattan.

Bold– have I mentioned how I can’t stand the “First Four”?  How teams that play Tuesday night have to turn around in less than 48 hours for another game and then do the same thing again?  Thank goodness NC State has TJ Warren (25ppg) to keep the Wolfpack afloat against a slumping St. Louis…and Mark Gottfried’s been able to coax an extra round out of double-digit seeds before.

Fold– I’m not sold on Michigan…they shoot way too many threes for my liking and have a dangerous matchup in the round of 32 against one of two ACC expatriates (Rick Barnes and Herb Sendek for whatever reson couldn’t get Clemson and NC State to the next level).  They haven’t missed injured Preseason All-American Mitch McGary that much during the regular season– they will in March.

Gold–  Who’s ready to hear Coach K talk about “three 4-team tournaments”…and what a great season these kids have had even if they don’t win it all?  It’s amazing to see blue-blooded Duke ride a freshman (Jabari Parker) and a transfer (Rodney Hood) this March.  Since Mike Krzyzewski began guiding the US Olympic effort, the Blue Devils have made one final four–and 2010 came right between both Olympian efforts.  I’m going with the off-Olympic year rhythm.

 

WEST– top seed Arizona reflects a region that actually has 14 of 16 schools west of the Mississippi River…with recent tournament underachiever Gonzaga facing 2013-14 underachiever Oklahoma State for the right to play the Wildcats.

Bold–Nebraska has NEVER won an NCAA Tournament game.  Not under Moe Iba.  Not under Danny Nee or Barry Collier.  They face a Baylor team that used to bludgeon them regularly in Big 12 play– and just like Maryland a few years from now, will show the world how the Big Ten has taken that program to the next level!

Fold–let the record show I have a buddy self-titled “Sooner Bob” (no relation to “UConn James”) and is all Oklahoma football from August to January.  He also goes by “Thunder Bob” from April to June…and “Ranger Bob” in July.  I think there may even be a “Brazilian Bob” showing up at the World Cup this summer.  Lon Kruger has a good team this year–but “Sooner Bob” is way too enthusiastic about a team he only pays attention to for six weeks.  And this team leaves sooner rather than later this March.

Gold– Wisconsin begins its tournament run in Milwaukee (which from what I am told is in the state of Wisconsin) and is remarkably efficient on both ends of the floor.  During coach Bo Ryan’s press conference Wednesday he started talking about gaggles of geese…murders of crows and parliaments of owls.  I have no idea what that means but it gives me confidence in the Badgers…

Selection Sunday turns into Bracket Monday with all eyes on who got hosed, which draws are easy and of course the “First Four Frenzy”.  For 68 schools the dream stays alive…while another 80 move on to the NIT, CBI and CIT.   The other 303 try to figure out what went wrong and how they can get back on track.  Or if they have the right engineer.

American (20-12, 13-5 Patriot League) heads to Milwaukee as the #15 seed in the West Bracket…facing #2 Wisconsin (26-7, 12-6 Big Ten).  Yes, Milwaukee just happens to be located in the state of Wisconsin…much like facing Villanova in Philadelphia during the 2009 Tournament.  A simple technicality if you ask me.  The Badgers were bounced last year by 12th seed Ole Miss…but that was the first round of 64 loss in seven years.  Coach Bo Ryan’s team has the no-frills feel of efficiency that grinds out victories…and against an AU team that’s developed its defensive stride lately (six straight games allowing 56 points or fewer) the air may be taken out of the ball.

First Four=First Round?–  I’m begrudgingly okay with the “First Four” as much as I prefer a 64-team bracket.  I’ve raised objections of sending Automatic Qualifiers to Dayton but understand.  But do we have to call Thursday and Friday games the “Second Round”?  Complete idiocy.  When 60 teams get first round byes, it’s not the first round they’re skipping but an opening round or play-in game.   I’m just thankful there’s no “double-bye” bracket like the ACC or Atlantic 10–yet.

George Washington (24-8, 11-5 Atlantic 10) gets a #9 seed and meets #8 Memphis (23-9, 12-6 American Athletic Conference of American) in Raleigh.  I thought the Colonials deserved a 7 or 8…despite the 19 point loss in the A-10 semifinals to VCU.  Quality wins in and out of the league should have moved them off the dreaded “on deck for the top seed” line.  Kethan Savage remains an untested entity…as the sophomore guard played one minute against the Rams in his first action since fracturing his foot January 18th.  The Tigers will be stepping out with leading scorer Joe Jackson…and everybody’s favorite Memphis alum Wink Martindale.

Fun matchups–from pairing Ohio State and Dayton in the round of 64 to coupling former ACC coaches in Texas-Arizona State (ex-Clemson coach Rick Barnes against former NC State mentor Herb Sendek)…from a Big 12 reunion (Baylor-Nebraska) to potential ex-Big East (UConn-Villanova a potential round of 32 game) as well as intra-state possibilities (Kansas State-Wichita State, Nebraska-Creighton, North Carolina-NC Central) one can see the bracket as always was set up completely by the S-Curve.  As in sometimes the committee’s full of it. 

Virginia (28-6, 16-2 ACC) gets the final #1 seed (in the East) and thanks to their 72-63 win over Duke for the ACC Championship…the team’s second ever (the 1976 team won in Landover as a #6 seed in what was a 7 team league).  In a weekend where other #1 candidates Villanova, Michigan, Kansas and Wisconsin came up short in their conference tournaments, UVa’s stingy defense (holding the Blue Devils to 38% shooting after limiting Pitt to 37% in the semifinals) helped deliver the school’s first #1 seed since 1983.  The reward?  A date with 16th seeded Coastal Carolina (led by ex-Auburn and former Clemson coach Cliff Ellis).  The Chanticleers are making their first NCAA appearance since 1993 (when as a #16 seed they lost to Michigan’s Fab Five by 34).  They also made the field in 1991 (as a #15 that lost to Indiana).  On nickname coolness alone, Cavaliers-Chanticleers should be something special.

Bracket Belly Aching– the beauty of Selection Sunday is even if they get it completely right, somebody will have something to complain about.  Take your pick:  did Louisville get hosed by only receiving a #4 seed?  Why are Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the same Regional Semifinal bracket?  NC State instead of SMU as the last at-large team in the field?  And did Wichita State get saddled with the toughest bracket despite going unbeaten?  None of this will matter Thursday by noon.

Georgetown (17-14, 8-10 Big East) finds itself in the NIT with a First Round matchup against West Virginia (17-15, 9-9 Big 12).  The Hoyas’ bubble burst Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden when they lost to last-place DePaul in the Big East Tournament.  Most thought they needed at least two victories…and the team’s loss at Villanova to wrap up the regular season robbed them of a chance to post another quality win.    The Mountaineers slumped on their way to the finish line with 6 losses in their last 9 games…and scored 49 in a Big 12 quarterfinal loss sealed their fate.  Leading scorer Juwan Staten was held to 4 points on 1 of 11 shooting in that game…and will get plenty of attention from the Hoya D.  The game will be played on campus at McDonough Arena–which also hosted NIT games in 1993 (they reached the final that year) and 2005.

Maryland (17-15, 9-9 ACC) winds up missing the NCAA’s and the NIT…as a 67-65 loss to Florida State in the quarterfinals wraps up the schools ACC history.  The winter of “not quite” concludes with another close loss (three of their last four defeats came by two points…and the fourth came in double overtime).  As they only lose John Auslander to graduation, will the unit that just couldn’t gel be able to enter the Big Ten with the necessary experience to thrive?  Will a true point guard emerge?  Can the big men develop and make the necessary leap as the program enters a more physical league?  And will Rutgers fans chant “Not Our Rival” next winter?

Alma Mater Update– after an underwhelming finish (2-5 including baaad losses at home to Georgia Tech and Boston College) the Orange (27-5, 14-4 ACC) play the first weekend in Buffalo as the #3 seed in the South Region against #14 Western Michigan (23-9, 14-4 MAC).  The Broncos have won 12 of 13 and more importantly are from Kalamazoo.  SU?  This team has all the feeling of the 1991 unit that lost to Richmond in College Park:  after losing some key pieces from a celebrated squad they overachieved…only to skid down the stretch before getting bounced in the conference quarterfinals (punching the other team’s NCAA ticket in the process).  Was this team once 25-0?  Although if you’re at Sign of the Whale, don’t be shy about trying the tater tots.  They’re not the wings, but you can’t always have a Final Four team.

March Madness grabs the fan by the throat and doesn’t let go until three weekends of thrill, chills and spills are complete…with the canned final call and Luther Vandross-voiced video montage providing the exclamation point.  The McDonald’s Shamrock Shake also takes the believers hostage for 2-3 weeks (depending on how much green dye your participating location has)…and it is one beautiful journey.  Minty Goodness along with a box of Tagalongs and a bracket?  Be still my heart.  For those who don’t know if your local McD’s offers this seasonal treat, check out “www.shamrockshake.com”.  You’ll thank me later…

Georgetown (17-13, 8-10 Big East)– the Hoyas missed a chance to finish .500 in the league while also scoring their second top five win in less than a week… turning the ball over 18 times (same amount as the earlier matchup) in a 77-59 loss to the Wildcats.  Just how good is Villanova?  This team sweeps both games from Gtown for just the second time (granted, there were some Big East years where they met just once)…had already wrapped up its second ever outright Big East Championship (1982) and tied the 2006 team (#1 seed that lost to eventual champ Florida in the Regional Finals) for second-most ever wins (the 2009 team that made the Final Four won 30).  The Hoyas find themselves on the bubble’s underbelly– projected the 4th team out by CBS and 8th team out by ESPN.  GOOD NEWS!– “bracketmatrix.com” has them as a #1 seed for the NIT.  As the 7th seed in the upcoming Big East Tournament– there’s a first round game with last place DePaul.  If you can’t beat the Blue Demons on a neutral floor– you don’t deserve to dance.  A win sets up a rematch with Creighton– a team they beat a week ago in DC.

Shamrock Shake Funfact I– started in 1970 as the “St. Patrick’s Day Green Milkshake”.  Thank goodness they renamed it…Shammy sounds so much better than “SPDG” or “St. Patty’s“.

Alma Mater Update–the Orange ended their final regular season in the Big East by scoring 37 points in a loss at Georgetown.  Beside myself, only a Shamrock Shake kept me from jumping on the Metro Rails as I headed home that dark day (little did I know there’d be a Final Four run).  The #11 Orange (27-4, 14-4 ACC) concluded their first winter in a new league by beating a signature-win-hungry Florida State 74-58.  Jerami Grant’s return to the lineup proved to be the band-aid that delivered the team’s first road win by more than one possession since January.  The victory gives them a 2nd seed in the ACC Tournament–in the sub-bracket of  #7 NC State, #10 Miami and #15 Virginia Tech)…and stops the slide from what one month ago was the Overall #1 seed in most bracket models ( they’re a #3 in ESPN and a #2 in CBS).   But despite a nice finish for first team All ACC forward CJ Fair (22 points and 7 rebounds)…the ugly monster called “lack of depth” (4 players saw 35+ minutes on the floor, only 7 played at all) could rear its ugly head in Greensboro.  At least for now I don’t have to answer questions from my Maryland friends like “What’s wrong with your boys?”.

Maryland (17-14, 9-9 ACC)–nothing was wrong at 2:30pm EDT in College Park…as the Terps vanquished a season of last-minute losses.  The 75-69 overtime win over then-#5 Virginia was the team’s first signature win in a year where the Terps had written their first name in cursive only to run out of ink.  Credit a defense that held the Cavaliers to 9-31 shooting after halftime.  Credit Dez Wells heating up after intermission (16 of his 18 points coming after the break).  And credit Seth Allen for being on fire to start the extra session (scoring the first 5 points in OT).  Unfortunately NC State’s win keeps the Terrapins in the 8-9 game (against Florida State) with the winner facing top seed Virginia in Friday’s quarterfinals.  The latest NIT talk has Maryland getting a #5 seed from bracketmatrix.com…and facing West Virginia in the first round (with a trip to top seed Georgetown for the winner).  Can Mark Turgeon’s team catch fire in Greensboro?

Shamrock Shake Funfact II–in 1974 Philadelphia Eagles owner Leonard Tose was in the process of getting the Ronald McDonald House (for cancer patient’s families) built…and proceeds from Shamrock Shake sales contributed to the charity getting off the ground.  Proving that Philly fans may throw snowballs at Santa, but they’re all about helping the kids and enjoying minty goodness three months later.

Cruising the Commonwealth–the Tale of Two Programs continues with the best of times being tempered somewhat at Virginia (25-6, 16-2 ACC) after the Cavaliers came up short in College Park.  Joe Harris shot under 30% or worse for the fourth time in five games…UVa was outrebounded and missed 8 free throws in the loss.  The loss may keep them from getting a #1 or #2 seed (both models have the Cavs as a #3 in the South) but it won’t alter their Greensboro schedule–as they’ll play the winner of Maryland-Florida State Friday.  By the time they do play Friday in the ACC Quarterfinals…Virginia will have suited up for just two games over a 16-day span.  Not exactly ideal if you’re trying to hit your stride.  Virginia hasn’t reached Saturday (aka the ACC Semis) or the Second Weekend (NCAA Regionals) since 1995…and this team looks poised to end that streak.  Virginia Tech (9-21, 2-16 ACC) is in the famed “10-15″ First Round game Wednesday.  I’ve never been a fan of the double-bye bracket…but unless you trim the field to 12 schools that’s what you’ve got.  The Hokies lost their regular season finale 62-51 at Georgia Tech–missing 19 of their first 26 shots.  Jarell Eddie’s descent (27% shooting over his last 10 games) mirrored an offense that scraped to but even 50 points on the board.  The good news is they face Miami Wednesday–and the Hokies posted their only two league games against the Hurricanes this winter.

Shamrock Shake Funfact III–in an era when McDonald’s commercials featured such characters like “The Hamburgler” and “Mayor McCheese”…the fuzzy purple “Grimace” was the milkshake specialist.  Thus it makes perfect sense the green-furred “Uncle O’Grimacey” would become the patron saint of an ad campaign–and a hero to kids worldwide. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zu6q8HzmQ7Q)

George Washington (23-7, 11-5 Atlantic 10)–the Colonials continue to be in the at-large middle class…listed by CBS as a #8 seed (in Arizona’s regional) and a #9 (in Florida’s bracket) by ESPN.  Atlantic 10 Player of the Week Maurice Creek notched 24 points and 7 rebounds in the 70-67 win at Fordham (the Rams made this one close thanks to outrebounding GW 45-28) to assure the Colonials of the #3 seed in the upcoming conference tournament–where they await the winner of UMass and Rhode Island.  They beat the Rams in January (17 points and 7 rebounds for Kevin Larsen) and lost to the Minutemen in February (shooting 37% from the field…turning the ball over 14 times and getting outrebounded by 4).  Help is on the way…in the form of second-leading scorer Kethan Savage as the guard returns after missing 12 games with a broken foot–albeit in limited minutes.

Shamrock Shake Funfact IV–the was briefly a “Shamrock Sundae” in 1980…that for some reason didn’t stick.  I’m thinking it was the lack of Uncle O’Grimacey in the marketing efforts… (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOb7T1pqj08)

George Mason (11-19, 4-12) couldn’t escape the dreaded 12-13 game at the beginning of the Atlantic 10 Tournament as an 81-69 loss to Duquesne proves costly.  The Dukes hit 11 of 21 three-pointers and shot 53% for the game…as the Patriots regroup to face Fordham.  The Rams won only twice in league play–but one of those victories was against GMU as Branden Frazier scored all 22 of his points after halftime in a January 22nd 76-70 triumph.  Can Mason extend their inaugural conference campaign?

Maryland Womens Window– unfortunately the stay in Greensboro was brief for the #11 Terps (24-6,  12-4 ACC) as they couldn’t contain North Carolina during crucial stretches of a 73-70 loss to the Tar Heels despite 24 points and 11 rebounds for Alyssa Thomas.  The loss drops Maryland to a potential 4th seed (in Tennessee’s bracket with a potential second round matchup against 5th seeded Michigan State).  The good news is they’ll begin their NCAA Tournament run at Comcast Center.  The bad news is Alyssa Thomas is one year too old to benefit from a fantastic recruiting class that needs one more winter to transform freshmen Lexie Brown, Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough into major contributors that can carry a team in March.

Shamrock Shake Funfact V–the recipe now calls for whipped cream and a cherry.  Don’t be a fool…enjoy the beverage as nature intended.  When they changed to a clear cup I was at first taken aback.  There are certain things where less transparency is more…

American (19-12, 13-5 Patriot League)– the Eagles battle regular season champion Boston University Wednesday for the automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament.. they torched the Terriers by 30 at Bender Arena (shooting 71%) but lost by nine in Beantown (getting outrebounded by 16 while committing 13 turnovers).  Tony Wroblicky got into foul trouble in the second game–something AU can ill afford again.  The Eagle D has carried them to the finals as they’ve held Colgate to 39% shooting and Holy Cross to 38% from the field.  A win Wednesday would cap a miraculous run for the team in coach Mike Brennan’s first season at the helm.

Howard (7-24, 5-11 MEAC) somehow emerges from a 5-way tie to claim the #8 seed.  I don’t know which tiebreaker put them over the top.  The Bison battle North Carolina A&T Tuesday– a team they beat in February by eight thanks to 23 points from James Daniel.  While Morgan State handcuffed the freshman to 4-16 shooting in a 68-66 overtime loss… that’s the only time the guard’s been held under 20 points since February 3rd.  The winner gets regular season titlist North Carolina Central in the quarterfinals…

Shamrock Shake Funfact VI–I reportedly consumed 61 Shammy Shakes in 1996…which I thought was the record (by one).  Sadly, due to the leap year there was an extra day of Shamrock Shake sales that year…that is why my ’96 total gets an asterisk (actually they list both records– there was never actually an asterisk).

In eight days the field of 68 will be set in stone.  But there are already automatic qualifiers for both the NCAA (Harvard taking the Ivy League) and NIT (High Point losing in the Southern Tournament)…as the end of the regular season for most leagues gives fans rivalry games or schedule-fillers.  Say what you will about Duke-UNC, but the ACC does it right by having these two schools meet at the end of the regular season.  How is Indiana NOT playing Purdue this weekend?  Kansas-West Virginia is supposed to get me excited?  At least the SEC has Kentucky playing Florida…

SATURDAY–

2PM–Georgetown (17-12, 8-9 Big East) at #6 Villanova (27-3, 15-2)–the Hoyas try to spoil senior day for the Wildcats and boost their own NCAA Tournament prospects (#14 strength of schedule in Division I).  They turned the ball over 18 times in a five point loss to Villanova in January… and one reason ‘Nova’s already wrapped up the Big East title has been an aggressive defense.  Markel Starks notched 20 points in the DC matchup—the senior’s averaging 21 points over the last three games.

2PM–Virginia Tech (9-20, 2-15 ACC) at Georgia Tech (14-16, 5-12)–the winter of discontent is almost over for the woeful Hokies.  The loss to Maryland sentenced them to last place in the league…while the Yellowjackets upset win at #4 Syracuse gives GT a little late-season momentum. VT looks to limit Trae Gordon–who leads the Jackets with 13ppg but was held scoreless in 31 minutes at Notre Dame and scored 2 against Duke.  Scoring has been an issue late for the Hokies…failing to reach the 55 point mark in 4 of their last 6 games.

4:30–George Washington (22-7, 10-5 Atlantic 10) at Fordham (9-19, 2-13)–a Colonials win plus a loss by UMass or Saint Joseph’s locks up a first round bye in the conference tournament.  The Rams have already wrapped up last place in the league…so a win would set up a rematch in the A-10 first round.  GW dominated the Smith Center meeting–leading by 23 at the half.  Good news from Foggy Bottom:  ESPN reports guard Kethan Savage will be back from a broken foot for postseason play (the team is 15-3 with and 7-4 without the sophomore).

5:30–American entertains Holy Cross in the Patriot League Semifinals–the Eagles swept the Crusaders in the regular season with the home game quite a bit closer (a 63-57 decision where HC hit 60% of their shots)…thanks to handcuffing leading scorer Dave Dudzinski (6ts and 8reb in the February 1st game).  The 6-foot-9 center’s averaging 15 points over his last six games. Tony Wroblicky will have his work cut out again…

7PM–George Mason (11-18, 4-11 Atlantic 10) hosts Duquesne (12-16, 4-11) in the fight for 10th place in a league that despite its name has ten members.  The Patriots notched their first ever A-10 win over the Dukes February 8th thanks to Sherrod Wright’s 23 points.  Duquesne boasts British import Ovie Soko (18ppg, 8rpg)–the London native scored 21 against the Patriots earlier this year.  A win this weekend would mean coach Paul Hewitt’s team went 5-3 over the second half of the conference campaign.

SUNDAY–

NOON–Maryland (16-14, 8-9 ACC) hosts #5 Virginia(25-5, 16-1) in the final regular season ACC matchup between the two longtime foes.  While Duke and North Carolina are often the focus of the Terrapin faithful– the Cavaliers was the great rivalry that wasn’t over the last 60 years.  Undercutting the close proximity of College Park and Charlottesville was the fact that the two schools were rarely great at the same time…so although they met the stakes were rarely what they were if they met UNC or Duke (or even NC State pre-1990).  There was always a mutual disdain–as the hardscrabble Terrapin faithful thought the Cavalier fans were a little too popped-collar for their taste, and the Charlottesville folk found the cretins of College Park to be beneath them (after all, Thomas Jefferson founded their university–did you know he not only wrote the Declaration of Independence but also was our third President?).  In the meeting at John Paul Jones Arena, the Terps were betrayed by poor 3-point shooting (29%) and the patented second half surge (17-6 UVa run between the 12 and 4 minute marks).  While the Cavaliers are already assured of the top seed in the ACC Tournament…Maryland with a win plus a Florida State loss would take the 7th seed next weekend.  The Seminoles have that rivalry game with Syracuse–because Miami’s busy playing rival Wake Forest.  At least the ACC did it right one last time– putting the Terps and Cavaliers on the floor to end the season one last time.

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