EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s that time of year again. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament — easily one of the greatest sporting events of the year — is upon us. March Madness is amateur athletics at its best: three weeks of college spirit and regional rivalries, in which every small school is a Cinderella and the clock hasn’t struck midnight (yet). NRO asked Andrew Cline, editorial-page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader (and Tar Heel fan), for ten story lines he’ll be watching in this year’s tourney.
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The “First Four”: This year the NCAA milked the tournament for more money by adding three additional play-in games: eight teams, rather than last year’s two, competed for placement in the 64-team field. Two of those four winners, the University of North Carolina–Asheville and the University of Texas–San Antonio, will become 16 seeds, who will promptly be decimated by Ohio State and Pitt. But Virginia Commonwealth becomes the Southwest Region’s 11 seed, and Clemson the East Region’s 12 seed. Those two will face relatively weak higher seeds from the Big East (West Virginia and Georgetown).
#page#San Diego State University: The Aztecs are 0–6 in NCAA tournament history. This year, however, they’re 32–2 and ranked No. 6 in the nation. The only other teams with only two losses are No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Kansas (and both Aztec losses are to No. 10 BYU).
#page#Fighting Irish seniors: Southwest Region two-seed Notre Dame features a five-senior starting lineup that just fought its way to 2nd place in the Big East, the toughest conference in the country this year, and a No. 5 national ranking. Guard Ben Hansbrough, brother of former UNC star Tyler Hansbrough, could make his mark on this tournament.
#page#Belmont: UCLA has the most tournament titles in history, but this year the Bruins to watch are from Nashville. This team can play. They’re 30–4 and face the perennially disappointing Wisconsin. Five of Sports Illustrated’s six college hoops experts have picked 13-seed Belmont over four-seed Wisconsin.
#page#Jimmer Fredette: The BYU guard is the nation’s leading scorer with an average of 28.5 points per game. And apparently he’s done it without having premarital sex. BYU star forward Brandon Davies won’t play in the tournament because he was suspended for violating the university honor code — he had sex with his girlfriend. BYU might not get far without Davies, but Fredette is going to try, and that’ll be fun to watch. Fredette is third in the nation in three-pointers with 112 made, and second in the nation in free throws made, sinking 230 of his 258 attempts from the line.
#page#Xavier–Marquette: This East Region matchup (7:27, Friday night) should make for an intense game. No. 20 Xavier is the six seed and could make a good run. But 11-seeded Marquette has beaten Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Connecticut this year while losing by only five at Duke and only three to Gonzaga.
#page#Historic runs in the Southeast? Not a single ten, 12, or 13 seed has ever made the Final Four. Ten-seed Michigan State and 13-seed Belmont, both in the Southeast Region, would be this year’s best shots.
#page#Purdue–Notre Dame: In the Southwest Region, two-seed Notre Dame could face three-seed Purdue, its in-state rival, in the Sweet Sixteen. It’s not Duke–Carolina, but it could be a very entertaining game.
#page#Twelve for four? I’m not predicting this, but every 12 seed, particularly Richmond, is a decent pick for an upset this year. And the 11 seeds, which include Missouri and Gonzaga, aren’t bad either.
#page#Devil tears: Duke’s Coach K grooms his players to expect to win. But if they don’t, the players look the way young al-Qaeda recruits must look when told they’re being shipped to Gitmo. Coach K has 898 wins, four shy of his mentor Bob Knight’s Division 1 record of 902. If Duke wins the championship, that’s win No. 903. If not, look for the water works to let loose. And enjoy.
– Andrew Cline supports his basketball habit by writing editorials for the New Hampshire Union Leader. He was the school photographer for the University of North Carolina during the 1993 NCAA tournament. His Twitter ID is Drewhampshire.