The first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament makes for the best two days of television watching all year, with wall-to-wall games, thrilling finishes, shocking upsets and the general feeling that there's all kinds of exciting stuff happening at once, all over the country, and it's all unfolding right in front of you.
But while last year I forced myself to sit on a couch and watch the Tournament on your behalf, dear readers, with nothing but food, soda, beer and nonstop entertainment to sustain me, this year I bought a ticket and sat in the stands for four games in one day, a very different experience and one I highly recommend. I didn't have that finger-on-the-pulse feeling you can get from following the Tournament on TV. The unfolding Wyoming upset of Gonzaga, for example, was nothing for me but a slowly updating score on a scoreboard. But if there's a better way to spend a weekday than watching four basketball games played by top college teams, I'd like to hear about it, and I'd like to clear it with my lawyer before trying it.
As you may know, this year's Tournament is organized a little differently than it has been in the past. Instead of each of eight subregional sites playing host to half of one 16-team region, the subregional sites this year play host to two four-team "pods." That is, four teams -- or one half of one half of a regional bracket -- play their first- and second-round games in the same building where four teams from another bracket are playing their first two rounds. The idea is to keep the top seeds closer to home, a service to their families and fans. I'm waiting until the first two rounds are completed before forming an opinion about whether this is a good thing.
Here in St. Louis Thursday afternoon we had two games from the East region: Fourth seed Kentucky vs. 13th seed Valparaiso and No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 12 Tulsa. The evening session featured teams from the Midwest region: No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Holy Cross and No. 8 Stanford vs. No. 9 Western Kentucky.
The games are being played in the Edward Jones Dome, a building that answers the eternal question "What if we changed the name of our local dome every three months or so?" The answer being: Everyone would just call it "the dome," same as if you didn't change the name every three months. The tickets my comrades and I have purchased are in what people who use terms like "nosebleed seats" call the nosebleed seats.
Our day began with Kentucky vs. Valparaiso. The Wildcats are a talented team that's had an erratic season, with plenty of dissension and several player suspensions. Valpo, a perennial Tournament team lately, with six appearances in the last seven years, is a plucky Midwestern bunch, in the sense that they play in Indiana, though there are team members from the Czech Republic, Puerto Rico, Angola, Latvia, Colombia and Finland. The Crusaders got to the Tournament by winning the Mid-Continent Conference tournament final over Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, or IUPUI, which is pronounced, I kid you not, "oowee-poowee."
Kentucky pulled ahead early and sort of slogged to an 83-68 win, ruining Valpo's hopes of repeating its 1998 run to the Sweet 16, which, coincidentally, ended in St. Louis. Being way up in the stands makes it a little hard to focus on a game, especially when the game's not very exciting. That left me with time to notice things like the fact that Valparaiso has a player named Stalin Ortiz, who is no doubt at the school on a glorious five-year plan. The key to Stalin's success is his hustle. You won't catch him playing the game at a Trotsky.
We were able, by way of a complicated manuever known in the crowd management profession as "sneaking down," to get ourselves into much better seats, on floor level, for the Marquette-Tulsa game that followed. Here I found myself briefly with a dilemma. I had picked Marquette in my Tournament bracket, but I always root for the underdog, which in this case would be Tulsa. No problem there, since the pool I'm in isn't played for money. I can root against my picks with impunity. But our move to better seats had landed us squarely in a Marquette rooting section, and I thought I'd be missing out on the fun if I were rooting against the team that everyone around me was rooting for. Especially if that team was winning.
But enough Tulsa fans made their presence felt around me that I decided to just go ahead and root for them, even though they have a silly nickname, the Golden Hurricane. Not Hurricanes. Hurricane. Just the one. Which is one more than they're ever likely to get in Tulsa. Their mascot, incidentally, looks like a tornado, which would be a great, and more geographically appropriate, nickname: the Tulsa Tornadoes. Or even better, the Tulsa Twisters. The mascot also looks a little like a pale carrot, and a bit like an inverted scoop of soft-serve ice cream, neither of which lends itself to good sports nicknames.
But I digress. The point is, Marquette-Tulsa was a doozy. Two athletic teams went back and forth, with Tulsa building and then losing a lead, but scoring the game-winning basket with 14 seconds left. Marquette had a chance to tie, but couldn't get a play organized, and a desperation 35-footer fell way short.
Meanwhile, my bracket was going to Hades in a handcart. Marquette wasn't my only bad pick. I correctly chose Kent State over Oklahoma in the South, a mild (10 seed over a 7) upset, but was wrong in picking another 10, Pepperdine, to beat Wake Forest in the Midwest, and wrong in picking North Carolina Charlotte, a 9 seed in the South, over Notre Dame. I also hadn't counted on Missouri, No. 12 in the West, beating No. 5 Miami. In short, a disaster, and I hadn't even gotten to the evening games, in which I'd picked Gonzaga, USC, Utah and Western Kentucky, all losers.
The latter, the Hilltoppers, shot horribly against Stanford in the late game except for one bright moment in the second half when they hit three straight three-pointers to pull within one point. But the moment passed, Stanford soon reestablished the 10-point lead it had maintained for most of the game, and the Cardinal went on to win an ugly one, 84-68. I say ugly, I'll say in the interest of full disclosure, because it's always ugly to me when Stanford wins, since I'm a Cal graduate and despise Stanford like few other things. I would find things to like about the Al-Quaida All-Stars if they were lined up against Stanford. But anyway this game happened to be objectively ugly as well.
There was nothing ugly about little Holy Cross' valiant crusade against Kansas in the first evening game. (After Valparaiso, the Holy Cross Crusaders were the second bunch of Crusaders we'd seen Saturday. That's a rough Saturday in certain circumstances.) With the dome full of Kansas faithful, Missouri-loving locals who hate Kansas like I hate Stanford, and disinterested observers in Western Kentucky and Stanford colors who found themselves pulling for the underdog, the joint was rocking as Holy Cross fell behind early, snarled back into it, then clung to a small lead for most of the game.
We were back upstairs for the evening session, but had no trouble staying focused on this one. No 16th seed had ever beaten a No. 1 seed, and it looked like we might be in for some real history. But Holy Cross wore down late and Kansas was able to hold on for a 70-59 win whose final score was deceptively lopsided. This despite losing star guard Kirk Hinrich to a sprained ankle that appeared to be pretty serious and may keep him out of Saturday's second-round game against Stanford.
My bracket is in disarray. I went 7-9 on the first day, and I'm 7-12 overall, counting the three second-round games I'd picked now-eliminated teams to win. A Kansas loss would have wreaked absolute havoc on my picks, since I have the Jayhawks going all the way, the revelation of which prompted reader Roy Hill to send me an e-mail asking, "Have you been smoking rock chalk in your crack pipe?" That's a KU joke, and a good one, and one I told Hill I would steal and use and take credit for.
But I haven't done that because I've been spurred to do good by Holy Cross' heroic, quixotic effort, and because I don't want to jinx Kansas on the eve of its showdown with hated Stanford. As I think Stalin Ortiz might put it: One Stanford win is a tragedy. Two is an even bigger one.