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For posterity: thoughts on the 2010 NCAA Tournament

WIN.

Not Auburn-related, but as with the Olympics, I can’t watch this much of a sporting event (particularly one I adore like a longtime family dog) and spend this much time thinking and analyzing it without writing about it. It’s either this or my friend Aron gets the world’s longest e-mail. So, this.

Best ever? A handful of writers tossed around the “greatest Tournament ever?” question after the Xavier-Kansas St. battle royale, and we can say this much: it’s in the discussion. Murray St.-Vandy. A 14-over-3 upset no one saw coming. The patently insane Mich. St.-Maryland finish. The phenomenon of Ali Farokhmanesh–the dagger to beat UNLV, The Shot against Kansas, the SI Cover, the beyond-delightful fact that he was so damn good people got tired of making jokes about how to pronounce his name.

But best ever? Your mileage may vary, but for me, there’s two major factors in determining something like that: 1. how good the games are 2. how many memorable upsets we get. Which means two tourneys stand out in my mind:

1998: Buzzer beaters galore: Rip Hamilton to beat Washington in the Sweet 16, some West Virginia kid to beat Cincinnati and (irony alert!) Bob Huggins in the first round, Syracuse (boo!) to beat Iona in the first round, and you may remember this:

You also had 14th-seeded Richmond and 11th-seeded Western Michigan winning opening-round games, Rhode Island upsetting Kansas in the second round before losing a classic Elite Eight game against Stanford, Utah breaking out a triangle-and-two from the deepest recesses of Rick Majerus’s playbook to pulverize pre-tournament favorite Arizona in the Elite 8 (76-51!), and then there’s Kentucky. The last genuinely likable set of ‘Cats upset timeout-less Duke in another Elite 8 classic, edged Stanford in overtime, and then came back from double-digits at halftime to win the national title over the Utes. Still an unbelievable month of hoops.

2006: After entering the Era of Chalk (and with tourney expansion a serious threat … more on this later) I was seriously worried that the basketball gods had given us 2006 as a kind of luxurious parting gift, a final memory to treasure always as the NCAA Tournament we’d known and loved collapsed into predictability and North Carolina-vs.-Kansas-vs.-Memphis-vs.-Duke boredom.

If that had been the case, though, it was a hell of a way to go out: 14 Northwestern St. over 3 Iowa, 13th-seeded Bradley making the Sweet 16, UW-Milwaukee and Montana winning first-round games, a double-overtime thriller between Pacific and Boston College to kick the tourney off, 16th-seeded Albany taking a double-digit second-half lead against UConn classics between Texas A&M and LSU, UCLA and Gonzaga, UConn and Washington. And, oh yeah, my favorite NCAA Tournament game and maybe favorite NCAA Tournament team of all time:

It’s not an exaggeration to say I’d been waiting my entire life to see a mid-major crash the Final Four. It’s not an exaggeration to say I’d considered the possibility it would never happen. It’s not an exaggeration to say that seeing the possibility come to life in the form of an 11-seed beating the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed laden with NBA talent is something I’m going to remember the rest of my life.

Which is why I can’t issue a verdict just yet on this tournament’s greatness. Right now, I’d rank 2006 as my personal favorite, 1998 as the best for drama and quality of play, and 2010 as a smidge behind both. It’ll stay that way if Duke or West Virginia beats Mich. St. in the final. But if Butler takes down the Devils or Bob Huggins Monday night and takes the national championship home to the old Midwestern Collegiate Conference? No. 1 all the way. Go Bulldogs.

Speaking of Butler: Anyone pulling the “Kansas St. was too tired” excuse as a way of diminishing Butler’s accomplishment can bite me. Do you know why Kansas St. was tired and Butler wasn’t? Because Butler managed to beat their opponent–a No. 1 seed–in regulation and the Wildcats had to take 10 extra minutes to beat theirs–a 6 seed. If you don’t want to be tired two days later, win your game in 40 minutes. Butler played better in the Round of 16, so they got an advantage in the Round of 8. It’s nothing but fair.

Tom Izzo is a terrific coach, but come on. Knocking off Louisville and UConn with last year’s bunch of Spartans was a hell of an accomplishment. Knocking off New Mexico St., Maryland, Northern Iowa, and Tennessee by a combined 13 points is also awfully nice, especially given the Spartans’ injury woes, but it’s nothing compared to last year’s run. Winning four straight close games as a narrow favorite just isn’t that big a deal.

I still can’t get over that first day. If the second day of the first round and an up-and-down second round took just a tiny bit of the sting out, those first 12 hours were maybe the most intoxicating the NCAA Tournament has ever given us. I’m not going to rehash every amazing game and moment from that day, but for me, nothing topped Ohio laying the smackdown on Georgetown. The ninth-place MAC team shredding a powerhouse Big East team to the tune of 97 points? A guy like Kenneth Van Kempen, a Dutch import who set the record for games played at Ohio as the Bobcats flailed for most of his four-year tenure, finally getting the chance to hit the NCAA floor and sinking 4-of-5 and helping shut down the paint as his team pulls off the biggest first-round upset in years? Two hours of the purest sports bliss available.

(That I was in Vegas for the first three days probably helped, I have to admit.)

As for the 96-team inevitability … I’ve done my best to ignore the talk all season long, because watching something as perfect and beautiful as the NCAA Tournament ruined by naked greed and contempt for the wishes of many in favor of the wishes of the moneyed few makes me want to cry. But I think it’s pretty obvious after today: it’s happening.

All I feel like saying right now is: I hope you’ve enjoyed this tournament as much as I have. Because unlike 2006, we really never will see its like again.

Which is one more reason to root like hell for Butler this weekend. If it’s got to go, let it go out in the most memorable way possible.

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