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…

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