The Christmas decorations are finally put away, only about seven weeks late. While humming "the most wonderful time of the year," the stockings were unhung with care.
One thought stands out about that song: It is a complete lie.
The holidays are indeed a wonderful time of the year. At best, they're the third most wonderful.
The second? The five-week period of horse racing's Triple Crown. There's more to that than the races, which could probably hold up the No. 2 spot on their own. The weather is getting warmer. Someone we know and love has a birthday in there.
The first? Is there really any question?
It's that three-week extravaganza known as the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship. Three outstanding weekends of college basketball (none better than the first) with lots of chatter in between. It's a wonder any work gets done and, in some places, none does. Most every workplace does at least one office pool and if yours isn't on the list of those that do, you probably ought to quit.
While the tournament proper is a wonderful spectacle, the reality is March Madness isn't limited to March. It's already started. With the end of the regular season in sight, some teams can feel comfortable about being one of the 68 teams in the NCAA tournament. Others are well aware they have no shot. And a large group of others are walking that tight rope, looking for that big victory that can push them to the proper side and looking to avoid that bad loss that will push them to the wrong side.
Let's face it, the regular season is pretty much one long exhibition. The only thing that really matters in college basketball is getting to the tournament. It defines your season. The National Invitation Tournament is a nice excuse to play more games but it doesn't really count for much. Who remembers last season's NIT champion?
Those other tournaments that have cropped up in recent years? Name them, right now, without looking them up. Can't do it, can you? They don't matter.
The NCAA tournament is all that matters.
When the tournament begins March 19, the area could be pretty well represented. Georgetown is a lock. Virginia Commonwealth (alma mater alert, so take this with a huge dose of bias) ought to be a lock. Virginia? Maryland? They better finish strong.
You can Google "NCAA tournament bracketology" and come up with enough hits to keep you busy until the games start. Two personal favorites are Jerry Palm's projections at CBSSports.com and those done at WarrenNolan.com. You can't go wrong with former Times staffer Patrick Stevens at D1scourse.com, either. Two years ago, Patrick missed one team. Last year, he somehow missed two.
The latest brackets posted by Palm and Nolan are pretty similar. Georgetown is a No. 4 seed, VCU an 8 (too low says the proud graduate). Both have Maryland as one of the last four teams out. Neither has Virginia anywhere in sight.
Virginia is 8-4 in the ACC, a well-respected league, and 18-7 overall. Those numbers ought to be good enough. Yet they might not be because of one glaring thing. Some of those seven losses are mind-boggling. Virginia is 0-3 against teams from the Colonial Athletic Association. The Cavs lost to Old Dominion, for goodness sakes. The same Old Dominion that dismissed its coach in-season when it had a 2-20 record. The Cavaliers played at Miami on Tuesday night, a game that could certainly punch up the resume if it went the Cavaliers' way.
Maryland had the same 18-7 overall record heading into Tuesday night's game at Boston College, though the ACC record wasn't as strong at 6-6. But the Terrapins do have that Saturday victory over Duke to brag about and there isn't the ODU type of head-scratcher loss. Maryland's only non-ACC loss came in the opener against Kentucky. The case is better than Virginia's, but not by much (and Virginia did win the first meeting between the teams).
These are two teams that will live and die with every victory and loss from here.
Palm's current No. 1 seeds are Gonzaga, Michigan State, Indiana and Miami. Nolan's No. 1s are Kansas, Duke, Indiana and Miami.
Miami, you probably recall, is coached by former George Mason coach Jim Larranaga. He knows March quite well, having taken Mason to the Final Four in 2006. In just his second year with the Hurricanes, he had Miami off to a 12-0 start in the ACC going into Tuesday's game with Virginia. One of the good guys in the game has engineered one of the best stories of the season. Miami last went to the tournament in 2008 and that was its first appearance since 2002. Now the Hurricanes are looking like one of the best teams in the country.
One of the four regional sites this year is Verizon Center. Here's hoping Miami ends up there, in the middle of the real most wonderful time of the year.
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