We continue to creep towards the best 4 days of sports on television of the year, when the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament dominate the existence of any person who considers themselves even a moderate basketball fan. Over the last 20 years, the first four days of the tournament have become an obsession for me as I turn the games on at noon on Thursday and turn the last one off right before 60 Minutes on Sunday. Each year I am treated to some familiarities such as Duke playing a game on Saturday in which no other game is against them so that 100% of the country is forced to watch, Clark Kellogg refusing to look into the camera, Billy Packer being a curmudgeon, random teams taking a game into the final two minutes and the creation of stars with names you dont forget. If I say to you James Forrest, Bryce Drew, Harold “The Show” Arceneaux, Eric Maynor or Chris Kaman, chances are you remember a first round game in which they starred. And who can hear the Universities of Cleveland St, Hampton, Northwestern St, Coppin St, Vermont or Bucknell without remembering upsets past? I have seen Princeton backdoor cut….watched the Hampton coach be lifted into the air with his legs swinging…..seen Kansas choke…..and felt the wrath of Taylor Coppenrath with the best of them. It is the best time of the year and I simply cant wait.
But this year also brings about something different in the first four days. For the past fifteen years or so, the first two rounds had two distinct stages. The joy as I watched other teams play games of consequence and the terror in which I watched Kentucky games. For sixteen straight years, the Cats have made the tournament AND won their first round game. But it hasnt always been easy. The Cats got more than they wanted from Tennessee State, Holy Cross, St Bonaventure, UAB and Villanova. And the Cats have been a part of second round games that were excruciatingly close and painful, ranging from Marquette to Kansas to Maryland to Syracuse to Cincinnati to UCONN. These games inevitably put a pause on the joy of the first four days and leave the fan in me pacing and looking nervously at my scribbled in bracket. Because Kentucky is Kentucky, losing one of the first two games is simply not imaginable and thus they are less joyous occasions and more nervous tests of fortitude.
But this year feels different. For the first time in a long time, the Cats are expected to do nothing in this tournament. They are fortunate to have made the field and after the terrible beginning to the season, the moment their name came on the screen on Sunday, a victory had already occurred. When the Cats take the floor on Thursday afternoon, I personally have no expectations at all…..this group is living on borrowed time in many ways and their performance over the next couple of weeks is all gravy. And because of that mindset, it is somehow appropriate that the opponent is Marquette. For twice in the last fifteen years, the Golden Eagles have taken teams that Kentucky fans genuinely believed were destined for great things and have derailed those dreams. In 2003, many believe (as I do) that Marquette took away championship banner #8 for the Cats and that loss still sits with many fans my age as the ultimate, “What Might Have Been” of the last ten years. Now, Marquette meets the Cats in Anaheim and there seems to be very little expectation or nervousness. How perfect would it be if THIS would be the year that the Cats take the Golden Eagles down?
Ultimately, the next few days is what makes being a college basketball fan fun. Everything that is great about the sport is there in one giant package and a year of suspense is finally building to its conclusion. After the bizarre week last week in Atlanta, I cant wait to sit back and watch games for four days and enjoy the spectacle of college basketball. It simply doesnt get much better than that….well unless Allison Stokke is involved.
Today is a huge day around these parts….we will be doing two of our bracket previews, taking on the South and the West. A Marquette guest blogger will be stopping by to give us an overview of his team and we will take a quick look at the Kentucky High School Sweet 16. Stay tuned….