Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Road To The Final Four Is A Bumpy One...

Now that the final four is here, it's time to re-evaluate my time spent on the couch wholly committed to the one goal of watching so much damn basketball that I make myself physically ill. And while that goal has not been entirely achieved other secondary goals have emerged. The timing of bathroom breaks has to completely coincide with television timeouts, sandwiches must be created during halftime and/or between games, and the completion of chores is off limits during game time. Priorities - trash can be taken out any time, but a West Virginia game winner happens in the moment - I like to call it Steve's Moment Of Basketball Zen. Loud yells occur during and a moment of silent contemplation after. Let the games begin - mmm...

The opening day of March Madness went fairly close to how the "experts" thought it might - close games, few upsets, and the first and second seeds rolling. Then, zang - day 2 began and my bracket was promptly scrapped and I was left in a furious fit of rage at my own stupidity. When Syracuse lost, I was confident that my bracket was ruined... However, Kansas felt the need to supply a confirmation by losing in the first round to Bucknell in the biggest upset ever. Wayne Simien's "I wish my name was Christian Laettner" turnaround jumper barely caught the front iron single-handedly ruining all hopes of a bracket victory. I had those evil bastards in the finals... and, like that, it was over. However, that wasn't enough - Oklahoma folded to a mediocre Utah team, Connecticut played its worst game of the year against NC State, Louisville smashed an overrated Georgia Tech team, and Michigan State rolled on despite looking pedestrian all year long.

Forget all of those teams for a moment and lets get to the second best game of the tournament - Wake vs. West Virginia fighting to get to the Sweet 16. Wake led the entire game by about 10 points, but at the 5 minute mark West Virginia came alive. Both teams shot a ridiculously high percentage, but every field goal by Wake was answered with a three by WVU. Suddenly, this February bubble team became the spoiler of the tournament and ran through double overtime to defeat the otherwise final four bound Wake Forest. Mike Gansey came up big for the Mountaineers. He scored 10 points during regulation and then 19 points during the two overtime periods. There were so many clutch shots in this game - it really seemed like a crime to have somebody lose. Downey hit some ridiculous game tying shots for Wake and everytime Gansey touched the ball it was automatic points. Six starters fouled out and the other four all had four fouls. One more overtime and we would have seen the two team's walk-ons battle it out for the win.

Just when I thought that game couldn't be topped the regional finals became the only quality television CBS has shown this year. Three out of the four games went into overtime and two of the games featured the biggest comebacks ever in the NCAA tournament. First off, the West Virginia vs. Lousiville game featured a 20-point comeback for Pitino's boys. WVU came out and hit a ridiculous 10 three-pointers in the first half. Luckily, Pitino grew a brain at halftime and took Louisville out of its ridiculous 2-3 zone and pulled a miracle comeback with future NBA star Francisco Garcia fouled out on the bench. The game went into overtime, but the conclusion had already been decided in the last five minutes of regulation with Louisville's remarkable turnaround.

How can that be topped you ask? Illinois had the damn answer. The Arizona and Illinois matchup promised to be one of the tournament highlights. Arizona played its best basketball of the year in the first half and 15 minutes of the second half - running up a lead of 15 points by shooting an absurd 57% for the game. Illinois looked like they were going to be run out of the gym and then, Arizona stopped scoring. In the final three minutes, Illinois cut a 14-point lead to 3. Arizona has the ball with 25 seconds inbounding and the play goes all wrong. Illinois steals the ball, passes to the amazing Deron Williams who hits a beautiful wide open three. The overtime featured some more great plays from both teams, but again the momentum swing in the final minutes was too much for Arizona to overcome. Many are calling this the greatest game they have ever seen - I'm in no position to argue.

After UNC slid past a fiesty Wisconsin team - Michigan State and Kentucky went to war. Michigan State led the whole game, but after a few slow down possessions in the closing minutes by MSU (why do smart coaches do this?) - Kentucky got back in this one. With Kentucky down by 3 points and 12 seconds to go - Kentucky squeezed off two missed three point attempts, but the third was truly magical. Sparks pumped a three-pointer that hit off the rim, then backboard, then rim again before falling through the hoop. The play was in-time, but the referees spent ten minutes reviewing the play to see if Spark's big toe was on the line. The television blew up the camera shot and played it back 15 to 20 times and the evidence was inconclusive. Overtime, bitchez... Kentucky had this one won in the first overtime as MSU was completely demoralized, but Kentucky's point guard didn't get off a shot in the final seconds forcing the second overtime. Kentucky's players looked spent and MSU stole this game to get into the final four as a five seed.
The argument on ESPN's Pardon The Interuption was whether this is the greatest weekend ever for college basketball. Mike Wilbon, ESPN analyst and sportswriter, had to go all the way back to 1981 to even have a comparison (three number one seeds lost in one weekend that year). The road to the final four was wonderfully unpredictable as always, even with the two top teams advancing (Illinois and North Carolina). There are so many great stories to follow this weekend - Illinois' quest for a one loss season culminating in a national championship, Roy Williams' quest for his first national championship, Mike Izzo's best ever win percentage in the NCAA tournament and fourth final four in ten years, and Pitino's return to the final four with his third different team (which has never been done before). One thing is for certain, you don't want me picking the winners. Just for the record - I had Illinois to win at the beginning of this tournament. Those poor bastards don't have a chance. Sandwich creation, timed bathroom breaks, and the glowing light from the television awaits. Steve's Moment Of Zen is almost here...

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