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Bravo, NCAA Tournament dreamers. May you never wake up

Northern Iowa guard Ali Farokhmanesh, on left with Adam Koch, sent No. 1 Kansas packing early.

Associated Press

Northern Iowa guard Ali Farokhmanesh, on left with Adam Koch, sent No. 1 Kansas packing early.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Year after year, we come to this same moment in our lives.

It is the morning after the first weekend of NCAA Tournament games, and we are believers again. We believe in lost causes. We believe in hopeless cases. We believe if you spend enough of your life bouncing a basketball in the driveway, that miracles are indeed possible.

I blame Ali Farokhmanesh.

And Omar Samhan.

I blame the shot that went down for Korie Lucious, and the Ivy Leaguers who stood up for Cornell.

I blame all of the unlikely heroes and improbable teams that turned this into what was probably the best weekend of college basketball in 10 years. Not only were brackets shredded and hopes mangled, but a pocketful of memories were forever preserved.

"A lot of guys grew," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told reporters in Spokane, Wash., on Sunday after Lucious hit a winner against Maryland. "They're all the same size, but hearts and heads are bigger than they were."

This is why the NCAA Tournament has the potential to be as spectacular as any event in sports. It is single elimination on a massive scale. In a span of four days, 48 seasons were ended. And of the 16 teams that were supposed to survive, only half of them made it.

"The problem with college basketball is there's not a big gap," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "Everybody wants to make it seem like it's a big gap. It is not."

Which is why the world is momentarily infatuated with Farokhmanesh, the son of an Iranian immigrant. It was his dramatic 3-pointer Saturday night that sank Kansas and turned Northern Iowa into the favorite team of basketball romantics. It is why Samhan went from a chubby center on a nondescript Saint Mary's team, to being one of the most intriguing players in the tournament.

This is why the tournament is outstanding the way it is, and does not need to be expanded or otherwise massaged. Just as 90 feet is the perfect distance between bases, 64 teams is the perfect number of teams for the tournament.

Expand the field, and you lose much of the beauty of the first weekend. No. 16 seeds may be helpless in the first round, but every other game has the potential for memorable upsets. And there were plenty of them this weekend.

A Missouri Valley team beat a Big 12 team. A West Coast Conference team beat an Atlantic Coast Conference team. The Big East is supposed to be the toughest league in the nation, and yet it lost to teams from the West Coast, the Mid-American, the Atlantic 10 and the Colonial.

"What happens a lot in the so-called BCS leagues is guys don't stay for four years," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "So you're coaching guys for two years, and then all of a sudden you have to go in and retool again.

"Teams that stay together, and guys who play together and understand each other like Northern Iowa, are very, very good. And they're very difficult for anyone to beat."

And so we have four teams seeded No. 9 or worse in the Sweet 16. That's the most upstarts the Sweet 16 has seen since 1999. It's as many as we've had in the previous three tournaments combined. For every recognizable heavyweight, there is a scrawny interloper.

In the East, there is Kentucky, which has won this tournament seven times. There is also Cornell which, 72 hours ago, had never even won an NCAA Tournament game.

In the South, there is Duke, which is shooting for its fourth title since 1991. There is also Saint Mary's and Baylor, neither of whom has made it this far since the 1950s.

In the Midwest, there is Ohio State with its 10 Final Four appearances. And there is Northern Iowa, which has never before reached the Sweet 16.

In the West, there is Syracuse, just seven years removed from its last championship. And there is Butler, which has never won a game after reaching the region semifinals.

"This is different from football," Boeheim said. "We find out in this tournament who the best teams really are."

Yet for all the overachievers and underdogs we saw the past four days, the chances of a Cinderella-like run are tiny. Which is why, in a lot of ways, the early part of the tournament is the most dramatic.

Because once you reach the Sweet 16, reality starts kicking in. If you're not seeded No. 6 or better, you have a 99.5 percent chance of being eliminated before the Final Four. In the last 20 years, the only low seeds to make to the Final Four were No. 11 George Mason (2006) and Nos. 8 North Carolina (2000) and Wisconsin (2000).

So feel free to believe in long shots and lost causes this morning.

Chances are, it won't last.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.

Bravo, NCAA Tournament dreamers. May you never wake up 03/21/10 [Last modified: Sunday, March 21, 2010 11:42pm]
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