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Vol. 48, No. 3 • March 2011 • .pdf version
He'll match your March Madness with a February Frenzy
By BRYAN BURWELL / St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Not too long ago, I believed that the best time in college basketball was tournament time. March is still one of the greatest months on the American sports calendar, with the countless conference tournaments both big and small, and hundreds of teams locked in mad scrambles to find their way into the NCAA men's tournament.
There's a very good reason they call it March Madness. And the conference tournaments were always my particular playground. But over the years, my basketball jones has developed a better sophistication and my appreciation for the subtleties leading up to the tournaments has heightened. As the final days of the regular season move in on us, some folks might make the mistake of thinking that the end of February is the slowest, most uninteresting time on the athletic calendar.
Well, what do they know?
Look closely, as much as I love the thrill of college basketball's postseason, there's one time of the year that quietly rivals every bit of the excitement of March Madness though with much less fanfare. The last weeks of the regular season are the perfect run-up to the Madness because this is where your favorite teams are not quite under the spell of all those things that are not under their control. There is no need to fret over such arbitrary stuff as RPI ratings systems, strength of schedules, Top 25 polls or the many mysteries of what does or doesn't influence the members of the tournament's selection committee.
This is the simplest time of them all.
In February, all you need to do is win.
One of the more fun aspects of the season is that it has two distinct and occasionally unrelated lives. The regular season is the lengthy preamble to a shorter, but more impactful postseason. Teams that plunder their way through the winter in dominant fashion are promised nothing by the time they march into spring. Others who spend the entire regular season searching for a glint of prosperity can suddenly discover a miraculous streak of good fortune once they get into the tournament season.
Isn't that why they call it March Madness, that giddy state where logic can be suspended, shocking upsets can happen and crazy dreams can live?
But in the meantime, watching the mad scramble in February is a great kick too. Too often, passionate (and slightly unreasonable) college hoop fans get despondent the moment it is clear that their team is out of contention for the regular-season conference title. But there are always two ways to impress the NCAA selection committee, and winning the regular-season crown is only the narrowest path to the tournament.
The other path is to realize how to best prepare yourself to become a dangerous tournament team. How often do we see the stars of the regular season get bumped out of the tournament in the first weekend, while another team that made a late February surge rolls all the way through to the Final Four, or at the very least deep into the tourney's second and third week?
That's why it's always more fun this time of the year to pretend to be on that selection committee and keep your eyes glued on every available game on the television. That's why I find myself sitting up late at night, channel surfing to see some of those late-night games on the West Coast, inspecting carefully the middle-of-the-pack teams in the major conferences, or click down the sports dial to check out the mid-major conference games to see who among the sports' vast middle class could emerge as this year's Butler Cinderella.
February is a great chance for a lot of teams to keep n compiling victories and take some of the guesswork out of the hands of those strangers on the NCAA selection committee. Why leave it to the uncertainties that lurk inside that selection board room, with its charts and stats and mounds of research? Why wonder if a close conference loss in late February is less toxic than an unimpressive nonconference victory in December? If you want a ticket to the field of 68, do your job right now.
A lot can happen between now and Selection Sunday, and as Butler showed us last season and so many others have shown us in the past, college basketball does not play favorites like college football.
Everyone has a chance, no matter what their so-called hoop pedigrees look like on paper.
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