Madness of March drives us basketball bonkers

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WALLA WALLA - Another March Madness is in the record books.

And this year's wild scramble for men's NCAA basketball supremacy was one of the craziest on record, with the eighth-seeded Butler Bulldogs and No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth advancing all the way to the Final Four. And two other double-digit seeds - No. 10 Florida State and No. 12 Richmond - made it to the Elite Eight.

What made Virginia Commonwealth's showing even more impressive, the Rams were one of four teams that needed to survive a play-in game just to qualify for the tournament's 64-team field.

This year also marked just the third time since 1979 - the year the tournament format expanded from 32 teams to 64 - that at least one No. 1 seed didn't make it as far as the semifinals. And it's the first time on record that neither a 1 nor a 2 reached the Final Four.

The 2006 Final Four included UCLA (a No. 2 seed), eventual champion Florida (seeded third) and LSU (No. 4) along with 11th-seeded George Mason. Louisville, a No. 2 seed, won the championship in 1980 and was joined in the semifinals by No. 5 seed Iowa, No. 6 Purdue and No. 8 UCLA.

Every other tournament since 1979 has featured at least one No. 1 during the final weekend of play, including 2008 when all four No. 1 seeds made it. And in 17 of those 30 tournaments, a No. 1 has emerged victorious. Teams seeded second have prevailed six times and No. 3 seeds were crowned champions on four occasions.

Arizona, a fourth seed, won the tournament in 1997; sixth seeds North Carolina State and Kansas took home the trophy in 1983 and 1988, respectively; and in the biggest upset of all, Villanova, seeded eighth, won the 1985 national championship.

So it was no real surprise Monday night when Butler, which, by the way, has surpassed Gonzaga as college basketball's most successful mid-major, proved to be no match for third-seeded Connecticut. The Huskies, who won their final 11 games after finishing ninth in the 16-school Big East Conference during the regular season, bludgeoned the Bulldogs 53-41 in a defensive scrum that resulted in the tournament's lowest-scoring championship game in the modern era.

It was, by all accounts, one ugly basketball game.

Trailing 25-19 mere seconds into the second half, UConn's defense limited Butler to just one field goal over the next 13 minutes and 26 seconds as the Huskies assumed a 41-28 lead the Bulldogs never challenged thereafter. For the game, Butler made 12-of-64 field goal tries for a record low 18.8 percent which, Cougar fans will be happy to know, knocked Washington State University out of the tournament's championship-game record book.

WSU had held the mark for lowest shooting percentage when the Cougs connected on 14-of-65 shots from the floor and shot 21.5 percent in a 39-34 loss to Wisconsin in the 1941 title game.

All of this aside, March Madness remains our nation's most compelling sporting event. And for several good reasons.

Games, for the most part, are highly competitive and leave us gasping for breath when they go down to the wire. Many of the players are marvelous athletes who amaze us with high-wire drives to the basket and cold-blooded daggers from way downtown. Coaches' antics offer an entertaining sideline sideshow. And the fans in the stands - especially the students - wrap it all up in bright colors of enthusiasm.

And then there are those darned brackets that millions upon millions of Americans diligently fill out each and every March before the first tip of the first game. The brackets are then positioned in places of prominence, carefully checked off at the completion of each game and, ultimately, torn to shreds when they are no longer relevant.

But there's something else that separates the NCAA hoops tourney from almost every other sporting event.

It's that do-or-die mentality that envelopes every single game of the tournament. The prospect of one-and-done. The realization that it's win-or-go-home.

And it happens so fast.

Including this year's four preliminary-round games, the tournament field was trimmed from 68 teams to 32 in a matter of four days, and then from 32 to 16 by the conclusion of the first weekend. And by the end of the second weekend, the Sweet Sixteen was winnowed to the Final Four that just fought it out in Houston.

No second chances. No coming through the back door. Every game was like the seventh game of the World Series.

It's an exciting format, and one I'd like to see high schools in Washington and Oregon consider.

Postseason prep basketball has become too watered down, with schools competing for state tournament berths in no fewer than six enrollment classifications. And on top of that, they are provided multiple opportunities to advance.

A team can lose a game at district and still qualify for regional play. Likewise, a team can lose in the regional round and still qualify for state.

That's too many second chances in too many classifications. And too little excitement.

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