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Tampa's NCAA leftovers could be history in the making

ST. PETERSBURG

At this moment, 25 years ago, no one understood that magic was not beholden to seeds. And then North Carolina State upset Houston, and the rules of perception were forever changed.

Remember that when you look at the list of teams coming to Tampa for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, and you wonder why there are no heavyweights on the bill.

At this moment, 15 years ago, few people knew about the freshman guard from Canada grateful to land at a nondescript basketball program with a spare scholarship. And then Steve Nash led No. 15 seed Santa Clara past No. 2 Arizona in the first round, and the NCAA Tournament had a new slice of lore.

Remember that when you look at all the big names that will not be coming to Tampa, and you curse the pointy-headed members of the selection committee.

At this moment, even 15 minutes ago, I imagine very few of us were looking for the nearest ticket scalper because we absolutely had to get the best seats inside the St. Pete Times Forum this weekend.

And, perhaps someday, we will wish we had.

Okay, I admit it, this is not the field I would have chosen for Tampa Bay's first NCAA Tournament games in five years. None of the tournament's top teams is here. None of the must-see coaches on the banquet circuit is here. None of the obvious first-round dramas is here.

First thought when the Selection Show had ended:

Who knew Tampa was on the bubble?

If you were hoping to star gaze, this is not the tournament site for you. Raleigh got North Carolina and Georgetown. Omaha got Kansas. Anaheim got UCLA, and Little Rock got both Memphis and Texas.

The top 12 teams in the tournament were spread among six sites, leaving Tampa and Denver with courts full of leftovers. It's almost like the committee got confused and thought we were hosting another Outback Bowl.

But here's the rub:

The NCAA Tournament is not among the greatest three weeks of sports because the big shots always win. It is because, more often than not, the opposite is true.

It is because North Carolina State could lose five times as many regular-season games as Houston and still beat the Cougars for the 1983 national championship. It is because a flawed Villanova team can play a perfect 40 minutes and beat a more talented Georgetown team for the '85 national championship.

It is because shots turn into prayers and turnovers feel like despair. It is because a player you never heard of before, and may never see again, will stick in your memory forever after a tournament game.

Did you know, in the last 10 years nearly half the No. 2 seeds have lost in the tournament's first two rounds? Ditto for the No. 3 seeds. That means some of the best teams on the planet never make it past the first weekend and probably never forgive themselves for blowing a shot at glory.

The point is, unlike some other big events, this tournament is not dependent on star power. It doesn't need Kentucky or Duke. It did just fine without UCLA for a decade or two.

It is the games, and not the names, that have made college basketball's final weeks even greater than college football's bowl-an-hour postseason.

This is why, perhaps, it is a good idea to acquaint yourself with a team named Drake. The last time the Bulldogs were in the NCAA Tournament, there were only 25 teams in the field and Bill Walton was still on UCLA's jayvee team.

Drake lost four starters from a team that went 6-12 in the Missouri Valley Conference last season, and now is on equal footing with North Carolina, Duke, Kansas and every other team waiting to hear a referee's whistle.

This is why, perhaps, it is a good idea to learn a little bit about a player named Hasheem Thabeet. Five years ago, he had never played a game of organized basketball in his life. A soccer player in his native Tanzania, the 7-foot Thabeet was persuaded to give basketball a shot and was soon scouring the Internet to find a high school that might be willing to bring him to the United States. Now, he is considered a possible NBA lottery pick.

This is why, perhaps, it is a good idea to look into a coach named Fran McCaffery. Three years ago, McCaffery took over for a wildly popular coach at Siena. He inherited a team that had just gone 6-24, then had two players transfer and two recruits renege on their oral commitments. Today, Siena is in the NCAA Tournament for just the fourth time in school history.

These are the stories in Tampa this week. They may not be well-known. They may not make the cover of Sports Illustrated. They may not hold the casual fan's interest.

But then again, 25 years ago, who the heck knew Lorenzo Charles was about to change history?

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Tampa's NCAA leftovers could be history in the making 03/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 20, 2008 12:42pm]

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