The Madness that is March

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March is here, and hopefully spring will follow suit, BUT March is also the time of the most exciting and unpredictable tournament of the year – March Madness.

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If you’re not familiar with March madness than you need to know 2 things. The first, is that it is a college basketball tournament known for it’s upsets and unpredictability. The second, is that you should make a fantasy bracket.

Here’s why…Because the tournament is so hard to predict you don’t need to know tons about basketball to have a chance at winning. In fact people often get their toddlers to choose their picks for them. But for those of you who a) don’t have any handy toddlers crawling around and b) like to make mildly informed decisions, I will give you some basic information on the top teams.

A few things you need to know….Last Sunday was a very special day called ‘Selection Sunday’. On this magical day the top 64 teams in college basketball are selected to be in the tournament. They are divided into 4 divisions and each given a seed # from 1-16. The seeds tell us how the team is ranked within their division and 1st seeds are the best.

Upsets happen any time a lowly ranked team beats a team that is of a higher rank. While a 16th seed has never beat a 1st seed, 15th seeds have beat 2nd seeds 3 times in the last 2 tournaments. These teams generally become known as Cinderella’s.

To give you some predictability context,  1st seeds have won the tournament 63% of the time since 1985 and the new tournament format. However only once have all four 1st seeds made the Final Four. The lowest seed to ever win the tournament was 8th Seed and the lowest team to make the final four was an 11th seed, so keep that in mind when predicting upsets. If you’re at all superstitious don’t pick a 7th seed to go all the way because they have never won the tournament.

I have decided to talk  about the top 12 ranked teams because chances are, most of them will stick around a little longer, and if they don’t, at least you’ll have an idea of who just got knocked out of the tournament by a team we’ve never heard of. So without further ado – the first seeds.

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The Florida Gators are a mammoth team this year. They are led by a killer coach by the name of Billy Donovan who is in his 18th year with the team. The Gators won their first tournament championship in 2006 due mostly to 5 talented players (drafted by Billy Donovan). The Gators were so happy that they bought the floor of the Indianapolis court that they had won on and installed it in their court. After that season, all 5 players decided to try and nab the title again, despite the fact that they were ready for the NBA draft. They did it too, becoming the 2nd team to win back to back championships, and the 1st team to do it with the same starting line up.

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Now, Billy Donovan is an interesting guy who crouches a lot during games but more importantly, took a program that had only ever been mediocre, and made it one of the best basketball programs in the country. After his second national championship in 2007 he was offered the head coaching position of the Orlando NBA team and he took it. Lucky for us, in a real Coach Taylor move, he only lasted 6 days before realizing he was a college coach at heart, and returning to the Gators. Fun fact about Billy here, before he decided to go into coaching he became a Wall Street stock broker for a year. Fun fact #2 and this one is really good…..HIS SON IS ON THE TEAM!!!! #42 is Billy Donovan Jr. So they should probably win it right there.

Lastly, for the record, the Gators are fronted by a lovely alligator couple by the names of Albert and Albertine. Their student section is the Alligator Army.

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But the Arizona Wildcats hardly shudder in their shadow, despite having a fairly tame looking mascot in comparison. They have one tournament championship under their belt, and their success is due in large part to longtime former coach, (best name award winner) Lute Olson. They won in 2001 after the players dedicated their season to Lute’s wife Bobbi who had died of cancer earlier that year. With Lute, the team made 25 straight NCAA appearances (second only to Duke’s streak of 27) and he coached the team from 1983-2008 when he retired due to health concerns. When he left, the program had no real leadership for a year and then Sean Miller was hired. In his first season he failed to make the tournament breaking the aforementioned streak, but he was redeemed by bringing along star player Derrick Williams who helped lead the team to success over the next few years. Sean Miller won Pac 10 coach of the year this year, so he’s not doing so badly.

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But my favourite thing about Arizona is its student section. I have a feeling that sitting in the Wildcat stands must be a little like one of those awful drama games where words are replaced with sounds. It seems that every play has a corresponding sound or chant, and once you figured it out, I imagine would be quite fun. The band is great and play before, during and after each game. They have recently had to change their game day tradition of turning their backs on opposing players as they enter and yelling ‘sucks’, after each player is introduced, but I like to think of Arizona as a bit of a snot faced, punky teen so I say ‘Let the tradition live on.’

Forward, onto the Wichita State Shockers who got their name from the fact that many students used to payed their tuition by shocking wheat in nearby fields. In fact, early football games were played on old wheat fields, and up until 1948 their mascot was the ever intimidating wheat bushel. Now they have an incredible mascot named WuShock, who looks like a really cool Archie character, who just happens to have rolled around in some hay. He’s great!

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Want to know something else sad/cute about the Shockers? Basketball is their primary sport. In 1970 the Shocker’s football team were involved in a plane crash that killed nearly all of it’s players and the school cancelled their football program out of respect. Their town is like Footloose, but replace dancing with football and Kevin Bacon with real people.

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So they really like their basketball, but up until a few year ago, they haven’t been very good at it. They have never won a tournament championship and only made it to the Final Four twice, one of those times being last year. But they are on quite a streak, and just finished their season at 34-0. That’s unheard of. Now a lot of people don’t seem to give them the credit they deserve because they have yet to come up against any power teams. Basically everyone is waiting for them to fail once they start facing highly seeded teams, and they have an insanely difficult bracket. But If you can’t tell I am sincerely hoping they prove everyone wrong.

Wichita State is coached by Gregg Miller and has a few players worth watching. Nick Wiggins (brother of Andrew Wiggins, who you’ll hear about later) will be looking to prove himself and watch out for (ugh, so many great names) Cleanthony Early and Fred VanVleet as well.

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But the Virginia Cavaliers just sound important, don’t they? Their mascot only buffers this by looking like a bad ass Zoro. And Virginia already has one national title this year. Their fans won “Naismiths Student Section of the Year Award.” I couldn’t quite figure out what put them over the edge of other fans until I found out that they hosted trivia nights with the basketball team. Also Alex Ovechkin has picked them for the win, although his bracket has some pretty questionable upsets.

They are coached by Tony Bennett who comes from a big basketball family. Hi dad, sister, uncle and cousin are were/are head coaches as well. He even played for his father in college. This years team is a good one who just won the ACC championship title over Duke. They were expecting a high rank but were not expecting to be a first seed in the tournament. Although it is clear that Virginia is very good, particularly on defence, I really can’t say much else about them. They’re good, they’re boring and they’ll probably make the final four.

So onto the second seeds. I should warn you though, in case you get attached, that second seeds seem to be ripe with upsets, and have only won the tournament 11% of the time.

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First up for the second seeds we have The Villanova Wildcats – It would appear Wildcats are hot this year. But in a ranking of the two felines I would have to say that I like the Villanova cat much more than the Arizona cat. He at least has some personality. Villanova has been the tournament champion only once in 1985.

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They have a great coach named Jay Wright who is in his 13th year with the wildcats. He wins big time heart points for being married to a former Villanova cheerleader and is most importantly a multiple inclusion in GQ’s ‘Fashionable Four’ award. Here, for some inexplicable reason, GQ decides they should have an annual competition to decide who the four best dressed coaches are in college basketball…and of course they should!

Other than that I could find very little interesting about Villanova except that one time 50 cent and T-pain performed at some sort of basketball event at the school – which is something.

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But let’s talk about the Kansas Jayhawks. There are a lot of things I like about Kansas. For one thing, their first coach was also the inventor of the game, so they have some serious credibility. Also, you might think that their colours are blue and red but you would be wrong. Their colours are blue and ‘crimson’ and they sing a song of the same name prior to each home game. When the opposing team is introduced fans hold up newspapers and pretend to read them.

When the Jayhawks are introduced, they tear up the paper and throw it as confetti. Who doesn’t love confetti? They also hold an open first practice every season and call it ‘Late night in the Phog’ where former players and notable fans return and put on a little show.

 This year Kansas managed to recruit ESPN’s #1 pick – Andrew Wiggins, who recently scored a career high 41 points in one game. He is a force to be dealt with and just so happens to be Canadian. The team is led by coach Bill Self who coached the team to their third tournament win in 2008 and is hoping to do it again this year.

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Chugging right along, we have the Wisconsin Badgers. We are now dealing with a seriously cute mascot and a fan base called ‘The Grateful Red.’ They haven’t won the tournament since 1941, their first and only tournament win. Their coach is named Bo Ryan an author of 3 whole books on the subject of himself and coaching.

I perused the internet for quite some time trying to find anything interesting about Wisconsin and really couldn’t. I even looked up their notable alumni and I got nothing, so I’m just going to throw it out there – there is seemingly no reason to root for these guys…other than their talent and statistics…and their adorable mascot.

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Lastly we have Michigan – the wolverines. Now this is not specific to them but I have noticed something great about college basketball teams and that is that they seem to downright refuse to call their uniforms by the standard rainbow colours. For instance, Michigan’s colours are yellow and blue, but they call them Maize and blue. I am all about this, and have come to think that teams with creative colour names are superior to the others. Besides this, Michigan is obviously a good team. They have one championship title which they won in 1989 and they are coached by a man named John Beilien.

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Unfortunately Michigan is best known for a money laundering scandal that took place in the late 90’s involving a few key players and a team booster. It’s called the Ed Martin Scandal and involved a 6 year investigation, and more years of sanctions. Because of this, Michigan’s records can be difficult to understand. The NCAA sanctions were (as usual) fairly harsh and the team had titles stripped, scholarships revoked, and a few years of ineligibility. During that time they are also well known for having the Fab Five. A group of 5 popular and talented starters who took the team to two consecutive championship games in 92/93.

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But the team has moved on from all that, they were runners up last year, and this years teams is looking very strong, especially Nik Stauskas, an amazing offensive player. John Beilein sort of scares me. He has tons of experience, coaching 4 different teams to the NCAA tournament and he has never been an assistant coach, he just starting leading and never looked back. He’s very intense but you should know that his mother’s cousins family was the basis of ‘Saving Private Ryan’. So there’s that.

Those are the  top ranked 8 teams heading into the tournament. If you can take another 4, read on!

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Syracuse, the first of our 3rd seeds doesn’t have a mascot so much as it has a fruit, but they don’t seem to mind. The Syracuse Orange(s?) are an impressive team. Their coach had a bit of a melt down this year and had to be ejected from a game after a bad loss to Duke, but we should not fault him for being passionate. In fact we should pay him respect because he was been coaching the team for 36 years!

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 Syracuse lost a big player to injury this season, and have bounced back admirably with a strong team. In other news Jimmy Fallon rooted for Syracuse last year. He announced on his show that his reason for doing so was in large part due to starting forward, Rakeem Christmas, the fact that his name is Christmas and his # is 25. We’ll see what Jimmy says this year, but when I think about how much I love Christmas, I’m tempted to put on some orange too.

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The one team that can never be ruled out is Duke, who’s unfortunate mascot is the Blue Devil. In 2008 ESPN said that Duke had the most prestigious college basketball program in the country…and they pretty much do. They have 4 NCAA championship titles and have appeared in ten championships. I like to think of Duke as Meryl Streep, who maybe you don’t really want to see in another movie but is certainly entertaining, and always does such a good job. Duke’s teams, love them or hate them, are always pretty great.

 ImageThey are coached by Mike Kryzewski or ‘Coach K’ as he is called by his players. He’s also the coach of the National men’s basketball team with whom he has won two gold medals. From 1969 to 1974 he served in the army and coached service teams. I’m all about ‘Coach K’ even though he looks like a mobster. And his team is pretty good too.

The Blue Devils have a fan section aptly named the Cameron Crazies. Coach K calls them the 6th man because of how distracting they can be to their opponents. The crazies take tailgating to a whole new level building a small temporary city on campus prior to big games. This city is called Krzyzewskiville and it’s pretty legit. Fans will live in tents for weeks. You can even get pizza’s delivered.

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The crazies have had to change up some of their methods after Coach K himself asked them to stop their viscous campaigns against rivals. They specialized in throwing things onto the court – twinkies at overweight players, records at an opposing player caught stealing a stereo, But now they mostly cheer. And the cheers are always new, and pertinent to the team and players they are competing against. NBC once asked for a delay in broadcast in an attempt to censor them. And while they may go a little far sometimes, I have to say that I like their enthusiasm.

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Continuing right along we have the Iowa State Cyclones who also have chosen to call their red uniforms by a more fitting name – their colours are gold and cardinal, which is almost as great as crimson. The cyclones have never won the NCAA tournament and have only made the Final Four once, 60 years ago. Also of interest, the head coach of Creighton’s team was the head coach at Iowa State from 2006-2010. He was replaced by an excellent man named Fred Hoiberg.

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In my humble opinion Fred Hoiberg could be even more attractive than Jay Wright and I think GQ magazine should perhaps take notice. Not only that, but he wins heart wise because he grew up in Ames, Iowa. His dad was an Iowa State sociology professor, and he played for Iowa State in college before playing professionally for ten years. He IS Iowa State basketball. They liked him so much that in 1993 he received multiple votes for Mayor of Ames, giving him his nickname, Frederick “The Mayor” Hoiberg. Oh and he married a local lady and they have 4 beautiful Iowa State clad children.

The Cyclones mascot is not a giant tornado, but a cardinal named Cy. However, in 2005 an actual tornado touched down during a Cyclone football game, so watch out. As for their chances, well their division won’t be an easy one, they would have to beat out Virginia and Villanova to make the Final Four. If they do face Villanova in the second round,  the game will go down in history as the two best looking coaches face off to make the Elite Eight.

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Last but certainly not least we have the Creighton Bluejays, who have also never won the tournament – they’ve never even made the Elite Eight. They are coached by Greg McDermott who left Iowa State to take the head coaching position with Creighton. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but he also has a son on the team, a star player at that, only they don’t share a name. His son’s name is Doug McDermott and he’s really, really good. I’m very excited about all these father/son match ups, but it is worth noting that it isn’t always a good thing to have your father as your basketball coach. If “O” – the incredible 90’s retelling of Othello has taught me anything, it’s that.

So, Those are the top 12 teams heading into the tournament, but experts say that over 20 teams have an actual shot at winning. I figure this has been a good enough start. Chances are you will see most of them in the ‘Sweet 16’, a handful of them in the ‘Elite 8’ and hopefully a couple in the ‘Final Four’.

As for my personal Final Four picks I’m going Florida, Creighton, Iowa State and….well I don’t know the last one. The issue is that with all the heart that Wichita State has, and their winning streak, they have been put in a nearly impossible division. They would have to beat Louisville (incredibly undervalued as a 4th seed) and Duke to progress to the final. So while I will attach my bracket, my 4th spot is certainly subject to change.

As for the final I think I’m going Florida…if only to see the adorable Billy Donovan/Billy Donovan jr. hug that would naturally follow a tournament win.

Enjoy the Madness!

Here is my incredibly sentimental bracket

http://games.espn.go.com/tournament-challenge-bracket/2014/en_CA/entry?entryID=6037919

and here is the whole tournament as decided by cats

http://www.sbnation.com/2014/3/18/5521468/ncaa-bracket-2014-picks-march-madness-cats

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