March Madness is upon us once more, though one would be hard pressed to recognize the fever from this side of the pond. Basketball is fairly popular in Europe, with some notable exceptions (most Brits I talk to just can’t seem to countenance with so many points being scored in a single sporting contest), but they’re not really keyed into the whole notion of college athletics. You’ve got the various pro leagues around Europe (it’s pretty big in Greece, Italy and Spain, for example) and international competitions. And then there’s the NBA, though it’s late start times will likely keep it from ever becoming as popular as, say, the NFL is (unless Stern makes good on his twice-yearly threat to expand to Europe. Do it, Dave. Do it.)
Point being, the college game and news of it are basically nonexistent here. Heck, I’m betting that most Americans living here won’t realize that it’s on until they’ve missed the first week’s worth of games. Even those of us who stay in tune with American sports have a hard time keeping up with the NCAA game. So many schools, conferences, records, stats, seeds… it’s exhausting! So, I’m not going to pretend that I have any real insight here. I’ve seen a handful of games, and followed the Big 12 (especially my ex-local triumvirate of Kansas, Missouri and Kansas State, all of whom are dancing this season I am happy to report), but aside from what I’ve read on SI, ESPN and various other blogs, I could no more tell you which top seeds are ripe for a fall than I could handicap a ski jumping event.
I can, however, report that the tournament will receive extensive coverage on ESPN America and, for those lucky enough to have access, ESPN America HD. And, once again, the option for streaming the games has been provided by the NCAA: http://www.ncaa.com/news/basketball-men/2010-12-19/ncaa-march-madness-demand - an especially compelling option this first weekend, as so many of the games start early and can be viewed in Europe without completely altering one’s sleeping pattern! And I can tell you that, depending on just how long you’ve been out of the loop, there is a key change this season that is worth noting. If you pull up any one of the many free brackets available online, you’ll notice something called the “First four”, which is the new nomenclature for the four games tipping off the tournament. Two of these games are the 16 seed “play-in” variety games that we’ve gotten used to in recent years, and the other two are similar but at a different seeding level. In this instance, UAB will play Clemson for the right to become the official 12 seed in the East (and take on 5 seed West Virginia in the “first round”) while USC plays VCU to see who’ll be the 11 seed in the Southwest. How they came up with the placement of these “extra teams”, I have no clue, but it’s a much better solution than the expansion to a full 96 invites that they nearly went to after last season.
The teams themselves? Well, the top seeds are Ohio St, Kansas, Duke and Pitt. All of whom seem vulnerable to me, which probably means they’ll all make it to the Final Four in Houston, just to spite me. The Big East is nearly as scary tough as they were last season while the ACC is still down a bit, though UNC is back in a big way. The Big Ten and Big 12 both have a respectable showing at the dance but it remains to be seen whether either conference will back up that number with a solid showing. No big run of mid-majors, but everyone is abuzz over BYU and their scoring sensation Jimmer Fredette (I’m convinced that the hype is 90% cool name and 10% actual talent. We’ll see. Might be a bit of a fizzle as late-season injuries have sapped them of their early-season juice).
Who’s going to win it? Haven’t you been reading? I have no clue. I’ll be rooting for Kansas, as usual (and MU/K-State right after the ‘Hawks). It works out for me every now and again. And my “upset” team is Kentucky, which is so talent laden that calling them Cinderella would be just plain silly (they’re only a 4 seed, but came on strong after a long jelling period to start the season). Beyond that, I’ll just be sitting back and rooting for the underdog. Hope that some of you are going to do the same!