When One Team Owned March Madness

Bill Walton plays for UCLAHard to believe, but there was a time in my 60 years following the NCAA Men’s National Basketball Championship when you could pretty much pencil in the tournament winner with relative ease year after year after year. You just knew UCLA would take it all – they did it 10 times under the great John Wooden, and one of the reasons was our guest in this week’s episode of the “Stockton! Podcast.

Bill Walton was in a class by himself as a college basketball player, winning two NCAA titles and dominating the game. His memories of Wooden, his wild and bizarre thoughts on sports and life, and his upbeat outlook amid tremendous physical adversity in the recent past are worth a listen. With all of today’s strategy and technology, Bill will tell you his UCLA teams never did any scouting, took timeouts, used a blackboard to draw up plays, or even mentioned by name the opposing team or its players. It’s a fascinating interview you don’t want to miss.

That brings us to this year’s version of March Madness. To most sports followers, it’s like Christmas — maybe better.

March Madness makes people smile. It gets them excited. It’s the best time of the year.
We all know why. For almost three weeks it is a time for excitement, drama, hope, anticipation and, on the other side, a time for disappointment, sorrow and dismay.

If you have a school in the dance, the focus of your life is centered on when your team is scheduled to play, who they face, what time they square off, and which of the four networks covering the action will carry the game.

You may engage in a pool picking the winners in the bracket. It’s never easy. You know there will be upsets, but you don’t know when they will occur and how they will affect the rest of the tournament. It’s fun.

What makes the NCAA basketball championship special is the fact that it’s one and done. No best-of-seven playoff. No second chance.

I always like it better when my alma mater, Syracuse, is competing. This year they are not in the dance. I was hoping. I kept my fingers crossed. Last year, most experts said they wouldn’t make it. The experts were wrong. Syracuse not only made it in, they reached the Final Four in what may have been Jim Boeheim’s best of his many, many successful campaigns.

This year there was a feeling the Orange would slip in. They did have six victories over Top 50 teams, won huge games against Duke, Florida State and Virginia in the toughest of all conferences, the ACC. But I guess a bad start against some sub-par teams, a rocky 2-5 finish and a 2-11 record away from the Carrier Dome knocked them out. I think the road record was the factor that did them in. But we move on.

I won’t even venture a guess as to who will win it all. Your guess is as good as mine. I have no special information, and all I know is one thing: I don’t know and neither does anybody else.
There will be upsets for sure. Many of them will be shockers. When they come, they will affect the next round and beyond. There will be a team that will avoid facing a rugged opponent because of an upset and will take advantage of that happenstance.

Remember last year when Syracuse didn’t have to play Michigan State because the Spartans were stunned by Middle Tennessee State, the 15th seed? Ultimately the Orange unexpectedly advanced to the Final Four. You’ll see more of the same this time.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years: There is always a Cinderella team that goes far, perhaps even to the Final Four. But for the most part, the traditional powers reach the promised land. I’ve also noticed that momentum going into the NCAA tournament doesn’t always sustain some teams’ pre-tourney performance.

A lot of folks are riding the wave of Duke. I say beware. Last year, Villanova failed to win the Big East title, then won the National Championship. They are back to defend, but they appear to be more fatigued, a target for sure, and it will be tougher for the Wildcats. If anyone can make it happen for them, it’s their brilliant head coach Jay Wright, who knows how to put everything in perspective for his crew.

Kansas has the smoothest road, with their regional to be played in friendly Kansas City.
Gonzaga rarely delivers on their promise in the tournament because of their lighter regular season schedule. I think it could be different for the Zags this year. I also believe Wichita State is a team no one really wants to play.

You can analyze it a million ways, and that’s why it’s so much fun. Since I sincerely think it is folly to predict, I will simply watch like you and react. Occasionally, thoughts will come. In the meantime, let the games begin.

Keep an eye out for Dick’s podcast, “Stockton!” He’ll take a different perspective on the world of sports and share stories that he has collected from his unique front-row seat.

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