TAMPA — For elite national programs with huge fan bases, for legendary coaches and sheer star power, it's hard to imagine a more interesting draw than the eight teams that will gather at the St. Pete Times Forum for second- and third-round games in the NCAA Tournament.
Second-seeded Florida has the home-state advantage, but there are two teams from last year's Final Four in West Virginia and Michigan State, another team from last year's Elite Eight in Kentucky and don't forget UCLA, which made the Final Four in 2008.
"Wow. Florida obviously is great for their fans, and Kentucky has the most passionate fans in basketball," ESPN's Dick Vitale said Sunday night. "It's good for the area; it'll get people excited about college basketball, instead of talking football, football, football."
Want Cinderella? Clemson and UAB, among the controversial final at-large teams chosen and the target of much venom from bubble teams spurned, meet in Dayton on Tuesday night for the right to play the Mountaineers. And few teams locked up an NCAA berth in more exciting fashion than Princeton, which beat Harvard on Doug Davis' buzzer-beater to win the Ivy League championship.
To put the field in perspective: The teams playing in Tampa have combined for 22 national championships. UCLA has 11, Kentucky seven and Florida and Michigan State two each, with at least one title from each of those four in the past 15 seasons.
If the last round of games at the Times Forum was historic for the great day of buzzer-beating upsets, this one stands out for the large fan bases that will descend on Tampa in support of some of the biggest powers in college basketball. Kentucky averaged 23,603 fans at Rupp Arena this season, but it's more impressive that the Wildcats averaged 15,222 fans on the road, showing a mobilized, fervent following that often included actor Ashley Judd.
Elite head coaches? Kentucky's John Calipari and UCLA's Ben Howland are past Naismith coach of the year winners, and Michigan State's Tom Izzo has been honored as the Associated Press coach of the year. Florida's Billy Donovan and West Virginia's Bob Huggins are nearing 400 and 700 career wins, respectively.
There are players worth watching, too: Michigan State's Kalin Lucas is one of the nation's top point guards, Florida's Chandler Parsons was the SEC player of the year and Kentucky's Terrence Jones was the league's freshman of the year.
And Tampa will be part of the tournament's new format, as Clemson and UAB will play seeking to reach Tampa in one of four games to pare the field from its new opening count of 68 teams to its traditional 64.