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COLUMN: A maddening March reaches its April climax

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By John Shindlebower

March Madness is more than just a clever and profitable slogan for the NCAA basketball tournament. This year, it seems to be a very adequate description of the tournament that was scheduled to end Monday night with the championship game between Connecticut and Kentucky. What made this year’s tournament so special?
• Upsets. There are always surprise stories and Cinderella teams who make their mark in March, and this tournament did not fail to produce several. Mercer’s toppling of powerful Duke was enjoyed by everyone except the hardcore gamblers who may have had Duke prominent in their bracket. There were three 12 seeds (Harvard, North Dakota State and Stephen F. Austin) who dispatched 5 seeds. The Dayton Flyers wore the glass slipper the longest, advancing to the Elite 8.
• Stars are born. Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison suffered through a long season of unmet expectations during the winter months, but during March, he’s blossomed into Mr. Clutch. Three times Harrision has drained game-winning three-pointers in the waning seconds of games to help Kentucky in their improbable march through the bracket. UConn’s Shabazz Napier has led the Huskies, who fell to Louisville by nearly 40 points in early March, all the way to the title game. Wisconsin’s lanky Frank Kaminsky, played more of a supporting role in the Badgers’ one-point loss to Kentucky in the Final Four, but he took center stage in the tournament earlier as perhaps the most skilled post man in the field. Dayton’s coach Archie Miller was pretty much an unknown before March, other than the fact that his brother is the coach at the much higher-profile University of Arizona. Coach Archie Miller now has a new contract extension at Dayton and will no doubt be high on the list ofup-and-coming coaching prospects for major programs in the near future. And never forget Marcus Less - relegated to Kentucky’s bench for the most part since December, he erupts with four put-back dunks (and one goal-tend) in a breakout performance against Michigan.
• Great games. There’s yet to be that last-second buzzer beater, but there’s been no shortage of great games that have been decided in the last minute or the last possession of a game. Kentucky fans have been treated to such contests in the last four games in the lead-up to Monday’s final. Just as exciting as winning on that shot that swishes through the net as time expires, it must be equally agonizing to lose when that same shot narrowly misses its mark. Ohio State, Wichita State, Wisconsin and a host of other teams and fan bases saw their March end while they sat on the edge of their seat and watched helplessly as the ball bounced off the edge of the rim.
• Unpredictability. I thought going into the tournament this year that there were a legitimate 15-20 teams that had a nearly equal shot of getting to the Final Four and even winning the title. There is so much parity in the game this year, which is healthy. Play this same tournament 20 times, and you literally could have 20 different champions. The games were that close and the margin between the best teams and the middle of the field really isn’t as drastic as normal.
• Selection Committee gaffes. Monday’s matchup is the first ever between a seven and an eight seed. Collectively, it the highest seeded championship game in tournament history. While that is mostly due to the aforementioned parity, it also is evidence that the selection committee was off a bit in their seedings. UK fans cried foul when the Wildcats were given an eight seed, and ultimately the team proved they deserved a bit more respect than they were given a few Sundays ago. Only two 1-seeds advanced to the Elite 8, and only one of those made it to the Final Four. I guess that’s why they call it March Madness.
• Charles Barkley. Every fan likes to gripe about commentators and announcers, but I simply enjoy Charles Barkley. He’s basketball’s version of Phil Robertson. He cares nothing about being politically correct, speaks his mind and simply states his opinion. More often than not, he’s been right. He refuses to take himself too seriously. If you missed him singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” you missed a really ‘turrible’ musical moment but a hilarious moment of live television.
• Crow recipes. I’ve long been a critic of Kentucky’s John Calipari and the success of his Wildcats won’t change that. My beef is not with the wins and losses, but with how the program is run. However, I will admit that even I’ve been impressed with their March run through the tournament. Some call it stubbornness, I consider it being steadfast - but whatever the case - it’s painfully frustrating, maddening if you will, for me as a lifelong UK fan to be sitting this tournament out as a fan. As I write this Sunday night, I know that deep in my heart I’ll want to see Kentucky jerseys cutting down the nets on Monday night. Of course, I’ll be hoping Cal will follow most of the players to the NBA in a couple of weeks and Kentucky can return to COLLEGE basketball. But perhaps on Monday night, I can follow my heart instead of my head. Besides, UCONN was ineligible for the NCAA tournament last year because of their lax academic standards. It will be like rooting for the lesser of two evils, right?