I've laid in groceries and appeased my couch-potato conscience with a 7:30 a.m. run, and now I'm ready for 12 hours of NCAA Tournament basketball, the first of four consecutive days of enough hoops to choke Dick Vitale. If I were half the man I am, I'd be half-dead halfway through it.
The day starts, of course, with the pregame show, "The Road to the Final Four." I'm generally not big on pregame and halftime studio shows, but I have to admit that Greg Gumbel and Clark Kellogg are pretty good together. They do have a certain ... well, I guess I'd call it a certain ... a certain ... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Huh! I'm awake! Let's go.
I've filled out a bracket, but I'm not in any pools, so I can safely root for the guys in the road uniforms, the lower seeds, the underdogs. Rooting for the underdog, as noted in Salon Thursday by Andrew Leonard, is what the opening rounds of the Tournament are all about.
So I'm a Holy Cross Crusader! The Tournament kicks off with the 15th-seeded boys from Worcester, Mass., looking for an East Regional upset over No. 2 Kentucky in front of a lot of empty seats at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. The Crusaders hang around for a while -- I notice the numbers on their uniforms are in the same font as Kansas', and every time the announcers mention point guard Ryan Serravalle, I think of former Salon columnist Sarah Vowell -- but the Wildcats go on a 9-0 run to lead 21-14, and it looks like Holy Cross is overmatched.
But wait! Here they come! The Crusaders pull to within three before the Wildcats do that thing good teams do: They go on a run at the end of the half without even seeming to, and at the buzzer they have their biggest lead of the game, 36-27. Oh well.
Hang on just a second. Holy Cross gets back into it in the second half. Despite up-and-down, full-court action that would seem to favor Kentucky, the Crusaders pull to within five. Meanwhile, Utah State is hanging around with favored Ohio State in another East Regional, this one in Greensboro, N.C. Dang, I had Georgia State as the upset of the morning, in the West, but Wisconsin's pounding them.
With about seven minutes to go Holy Cross rallies to within 58-56, and the crowd, which has filled in, is now wildly behind them, as am I. The game goes to the wire. Kentucky leads by five but Sarah Vowell cans a three with 12 seconds left! I mean Serravalle! I'm so hungry! When am I supposed to eat?
Not yet. Kentucky hangs on for a 72-68 win, and CBS switches immediately to Ohio State-Utah State. They're starting overtime tied 60-60. It's a 5 seed vs. 12 seed game. Every year, at least one of those games is an upset. And this year, this is one of them. Utah State -- hate those uniforms, with the sleeves -- dominates the O.T. With less than a minute to go we switch again, to Wisconsin-Georgia State in Boise, Idaho. Look! Georgia State's up by one with 12 seconds to play! Wisconsin's Mark Vershaw misses two free throws with three seconds to go. Georgia State misses free throws too, but the Panthers hold on! The first upset of the Tournament (finishing seconds ahead of Utah State-Ohio State), and King called it! Hoop genius! Time to make a sandwich or something!
Now we go to Iowa vs. Creighton, back on Long Island. But after a few minutes we switch again, to UCLA-Hofstra in Greensboro, probably because I'm watching from the West Coast, where UCLA is important. It's not much of a matchup, while Iowa-Creighton, though less glamorous, looks more like an even game, especially with Iowa missing injured star Luke Recker.
(Speaking of Recker, by the way, read this book: "Where the Game Matters Most" by William Gildea. It follows Indiana high school basketball during the final year of the single-class state tournament, which gave every school, no matter how small, a chance to win the one state title, as in the movie "Hoosiers," which is based on a true story. The season happens to be Recker's senior year, and reading the book might give you the idea that the NCAA Tournament should let in every single Division I team rather than just 64 of them.)
Hofstra's never won a Tournament game, and it looks like it's not about to. Announcer Kevin Harlan pretty much sums it up after UCLA pulls ahead 16-9. "They are just too big and too quick." And also: Hofstra Pride? What kind of nickname is that? Anyway, I think I'll open a can of tuna, do some dishes.
I come back, and the little scoreboard bug in the upper left corner of the screen says that 14th seed George Mason is leading No. 3 Maryland in the first half in the West Regional in Boise, and hang on, Hofstra has tied it, 25-25. And now a three for a 28-25 lead. Then another bucket for 30-25. Hofstra's on a 16-4 run. Here we go again!
This is the great part, this rising and falling and rising again, your emotions like the tides, the story lines like opera, like life. You slowly get interested in a game between two teams you don't care about. You learn about this guy's jump shot and that guy's personality. The tension and excitement build and build to that final-seconds crescendo as you try to will some dark-suited underdog to victory. And then as soon as the clock hits 0:00 you're off to another game. Another mad finish. And then maybe another. Shot at the buzzer ... good!!!! The screaming! The cheering! The joy! The crying!
And then, whoosh, you're back to the beginning. New game. Two teams you don't care about. Scores like 3-2 and 7-4. The favored team pulls out to a 10-point lead, but then -- but then -- here comes the underdog, and you're hooked again!
Iowa holds off Creighton, while Hofstra cools off in the second half and UCLA pulls away at the end. CBS stays with that game a little too long, considering the outcome is no longer in doubt in the final minute and a half and George Mason and Maryland are separated by a point with seven minutes to go. We get there eventually, but we should have been allowed to see more of that game instead of the garbage-time foul shooting parade in Greensboro.
But who can complain? The UCLA and Iowa scores look a little more lopsided than they really were, and by midday there hasn't been a bad game yet. And I'm 6-1, having picked all the winners except Utah State.
As the East Coast eats dinner and watches the news, there's only one game being played, and most of the country doesn't have to watch it. But since I'm in the Bay Area, I do. Stanford, the top seed in the West, beats UNC-Greensboro 89-60 in San Diego, and that's all there is to say about that.
As the evening games commence (though it's still only about 4:30 out here), we're stuck with Duke vs. Monmouth. Duke's the top seed in the East, Monmouth is 16th. A 16 has never beaten a 1, and if it's ever going to happen, this isn't going to be it. Why is CBS sticking us with this game when we could be watching Arkansas-Georgetown or Indiana-Kent State or even Boston College-Southern Utah, all of which afford at least a chance that the underdog will win?
Sure, I know Duke's the favorite to win the Tournament. They're my pick. But we'll have other chances to see them. We can watch them Saturday when they play Georgia or Missouri, and we'll probably have four more chances after that. The only thing to do is root for a blowout colossal enough to force CBS to cry "Uncle" and switch to one of the other games. Hate to root against a prohibitive underdog, but that's the way it goes. Sorry, Hawks.
Duke obliges by jumping out to a 26-10 lead, and CBS jumps in like a boxing referee stopping a fight. Let's go to Boise, Greg Gumbel says, where Arkansas and Georgetown are tied 8-8. They struggle through the first half evenly matched, and checking the scoreboard bug -- well, lookee there -- 14th seed Southern Utah is leading No. 3 Boston College in the East and Kent State is leading Indiana in the West. Should I eat again? What time is it? The games are starting to run together. I'm talking to the TV a lot more than I was this morning, and making sense a lot less.
As the early-evening games end with some good finishes -- Boston College holds on, but dark-suited Georgetown and Kent State pull upsets -- and the Duke blowout, I realize how much I'm enjoying CBS's coverage. It's wonderfully straightforward. CBS shuns the flashy graphics and sound effects and "interesting" camera angles so well loved by the other networks, particularly Fox. (By "interesting" camera angles I mean camera angles that TV people think are arty and cool, but from which it's impossible to see what's happening in the game.)
CBS keeps the camera at center court, with the ball -- get this -- more or less in the center of the screen. We're not forced to look at endless shots of fans or coaches while the game's going on. I'm not finding myself constantly yelling at the screen, "Show me the damn game!" If something happens on the court, we actually see it. Every time. It's the damnedest thing, a truly radical idea. I heartily encourage the other networks to consider it.
The intriguing matchup in the late games is USC, an interesting, inconsistent (that is, beatable) sixth seed in the East, against sentimental favorite Oklahoma State, a No. 11 seed that lost 10 people close to its program, including one player, in a midseason plane crash. But alas, the Cowboys are completely out of sorts, and the Trojans are standing on their heads. USC opens up a 28-11 lead, and CBS bails out in favor of the decidedly unglamorous BYU-Cincinnati game in San Diego, and then as Cincinnati pulls away, the Georgia-Missouri game on Long Island, which pits the 8 and 9 seeds, respectively, in the East.
As Missouri builds a big lead in the second half I wonder why CBS doesn't switch again, to the West, where 15th seed Hampton (Hampton?) is leading powerful No. 2 Iowa State in the second half. But I'm wrong. Missouri goes cold in the last four minutes and Georgia goes on an 11-0 run to tie it 68-68 with 16 seconds left. Missouri plays for the last shot, and Clarence Gilbert's jumper from the right baseline goes in with 0.9 seconds left for the thrilling win. Meanwhile, Iowa State has things under control against Hampton. (Hampton?)
Hang on just a second! Hampton (Hampton? It's in Virginia) is snarling back. They pull to within one. Tarvis Williams takes a dangerous pass in the lane from Marseilles Brown and tosses in a 4-footer with 6.9 seconds left. They're going nuts in Boise, rooting for the guys in the blue suits. Iowa State's Jamaal Tinsley dribbles the length of the floor, slices through traffic ... and misses a layup, though it's a tougher shot than that makes it sound. Hampton wins! Biggest upset of the day! A second seed, gone.
My picks have taken a mild beating in the evening because of Indiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma State and, especially, Iowa State losing. I go 11-5 for the day. (Ohio State was my other miss.) Here are my picks for Friday: Illinois, Butler, UNC-Charlotte, Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Syracuse and Notre Dame winning in the Midwest; Gonzaga, Temple (I see upsets early), Oklahoma, Florida, Michigan State, Providence, California and North Carolina in the South.
My Elite Eight had been Duke, Boston College, Stanford, Iowa State, Illinois, Arizona, Michigan State and North Carolina, but with Iowa State out I'll go with Maryland. My Final Four had been Duke, Iowa State (now I'll take Stanford), Arizona and Michigan State, and I have Duke beating Arizona in the final. We'll see, won't we.
And, oh, yeah. What's for dinner?
Play of the day: Tarvis Williams' game winner with 6.9 seconds left to give Hampton its shocking 58-57 win over Iowa, the No. 2 seed in the West. The key to the play is Marseilles Brown's gutsy, dangerous pass to Williams in the paint.
Best finish: Hampton's comeback win over Iowa State, a stunning upset by a 15th seed.
Almost as good: In descending order: Missouri over Georgia on Gilbert's buzzer beater. Georgetown over Arkansas on Burton's buzzer beater, Georgia State over Wisconsin, Boston College over Southern Utah, Kent State over Indiana, Maryland over George Mason, Kentucky over Holy Cross
Best line: "Here we go! The madness begins with 7:07 to go!" -- Gus Johnson, as the Uniondale, N.Y., crowd gets behind Holy Cross during a furious run that brings them within two points of Kentucky late in the second half of the Tournament's opening game. He captured the moment beautifully. But every announcer who uses the word "madness" between now and April 2 should be banished to "BattleBots."
Second best: "There's a man who just turned into a 3-year-old!" -- James Worthy, watching Hampton coach Steve Merfeld go bananas in the aftermath of the Pirates' incredible win over Iowa State.
Worst line: "We've already seen one upset in this region." -- Kevin Harlan, every 30 seconds during the UCLA-Hofstra game, referring to Utah State over Ohio State.
Second worst: "He's done a lot of things that show up in the intangibles category." -- Worthy.
Best doohickey: The little scoreboard bug in the upper left corner of the screen to keep track of other games is a great idea. At the beginning of the day, it switches between games every three seconds, which is distracting. I mean, we have short attention spans, but I think we can wait more than three seconds to see what's up in that other game. After a while, it begins switching every 10 seconds. Much better!
Best-timed "look-in": CBS cuts to the Utah State-Ohio State game for the last few seconds of the half, just in time to see a lovely buzzer-beating alley-oop by Ohio State for a five-point lead that wouldn't hold up.
Weirdest officials' call: Georgia State misses a free throw with 1.2 seconds remaining. Wisconsin rebounds and calls time with the clock showing 0.6 seconds. After a commercial, we learn the officials have reset the clock to 0.9. Can the refs really tell that the clock wound down three-tenths of a second too far?
Worst uniform: Any of the teams that wear those cap sleeves rather than regular tank-top-style shoulder straps. Awful. But Utah State's the worst offender. They look like a women's softball team.
Best paint job: The floor in Boise. The area inside the three-point line is blue on one side of the key, orange on the other, and the key is unpainted. The free throw circle is striped blue, orange and white and looks something like an ABA basketball. How retro! Very 1999.