- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There was a nudge to normalcy at this playpen yesterday.
You could hear the squeaking of sneakers against the hardwood floor and smell the goodies of the concession stands wafting through the buzz in the air at Gaylord Entertainment Center.
You could scan the faces and imagine it was the March we know so well.
This is the March of last-second shots and upsets and possibilities and dreams, the basketball road show across America that leads to the Final Four. This is the March that steals the hearts of Americans each spring.
You could close your eyes and see Magic Johnson and Larry Bird again, Jim Valvano and Guy Lewis, John Thompson and Fred Brown, Larry Brown and Danny Manning. You could see all the big moments, all the big plays and all the things that have contributed to what the NCAA tournament has come to be on the sports calendar.
Eight teams, the Maryland Terrapins included, reported to this venue to take up the postseason cause, to stare down the single-elimination beast in the hope that there would be another day, another practice and another game. It was all there, the raw drama, packaged into 40 minutes. It was all the good stuff of college basketball.
Yet it wasn't the same. How could it be? This is now the March of mixed feelings and round-the-clock reporting from Iraq. This is the March of young men and women in a faraway land defending our freedom and liberty and making it possible for us to be who we are: the fan, the player, the cheerleader, the band member, the writer, the broadcaster.
One of the players, Matt Crenshaw, the point guard from IUPUI, thought of his military friends afar as he stood proud and firm during the playing of the national anthem before the game with Kentucky.
Crenshaw is a 27-year-old Navy veteran whose buzzer-beating shot in the Mid-Continent championship put IUPUI in the NCAA tournament. As sweet as it was, he placed the moment on hold.
Crenshaw was too busy sifting through his feelings, trying to make sense of it all, struggling with the military and basketball parts in him.
Before the tournament, he received an e-mail from a buddy stationed in Kuwait.
The gist of the selfless e-mail: Go out and play. Have fun.
"You really can't be focused on basketball too much when you look at what's going on in the world," Crenshaw said.
The focus cuts lots of ways, no one way right, in these deeply personal times.
Our thoughts are with those overseas. Their thoughts, in their down time, are with us.
Oregon's Luke Ridnour, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, took his cue from the soldiers who, in an interview from their sandy post, expressed an interest in the tournament.
"Knowing that they're OK with it, then we're OK with it," Ridnour said.
Rick Majerus, Utah's gregarious coach, disagreed with the decision to hold the tournament as scheduled. It just didn't seem right to him to be caught up in one of life's joys while across the globe a piece of America was navigating the horror of war. The feeling is personal with Majerus: a father who served on Okinawa and an uncle who died at Normandy.
But play they did.
Kentucky, the favorite in the tournament, dispatched Crenshaw and IUPUI in the fashion of a No.1 seed vs. a No.16 seed 95-64. For Tubby Smith, the straight-arrow coach of the Wildcats, it was the sort of performance that could impress even his toughest critics in his state. It was the first step, with five to go, the 24th win in a row for a team that has not lost since Dec.28.
Ron Hunter, the IUPUI coach, was fun to the end, the fun duly noted following a 31-point loss.
"Like I said, their guys are McDonald's All-Americans and my guys eat at McDonald's," Hunter said. "I enjoyed myself so much. It doesn't matter what I do from here. I'll never forget these guys. They made basketball fun for me, and it's supposed to be fun."
Utah and Oregon delivered a tense affair that could have gone either way, and only went Utah's way after Oregon's James Davis missed two 3-point attempts in the final seconds.
"A great game," Majerus said.
It was a baffling game because of this: The winning team shot 29.5 percent from the floor.
This is March, defiant as ever, even in tempered form.

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