- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

The implausible emergence of the Syracuse Orange in the Big East was an apt precursor to the NCAA tournament ahead.

Nothing captures the stomach-turning breathlessness of sports like the three-week, single-elimination basketball caravan.

Many of the games are mini-dramas all their own, more so in recent years as parity has descended on college basketball. The rush of adolescents to the NBA actually has enriched the upside-down proclivities of the tournament.

The improbable is probable, and filling out the bracket sheet today is more tenuous than ever. If all else fails, try going, “Eenie, meenie, minie, moe.” That method is liable to be as accurate as any other.

The Orange lost by 39 points to a modest DePaul bunch 11 days ago, which signaled their end to the various ashen-faced bracketologists who crunch the numbers and trends, as if the fate of the world depends on it.

Their calculations fail to consider the crazy human dimension, and nothing was crazier than Gerry McNamara dribbling the length of the court and hoisting a desperation one-handed shot from beyond the 3-point line at the buzzer in the first round of the Big East tournament.

That shot toppled Cincinnati 74-73 and began to restore the postseason relevance of the Orange.

That shot was the start of a four-day, four-game run that removed all the imperfections of the Orange, among them a loss to Bucknell in November, and resulted in a No. 5 seed.

McNamara is a throwback player from Scranton, Pa., beloved in Syracuse, N.Y., partly because he is the quintessential overachiever who is clearly lacking in physical gifts.

News dispatches questioning his place among the conference’s elite rallied coach Jim Boeheim to his defense in a profane manner after the Cincinnati game.

McNamara’s capacity to play beyond his ordinariness contributes to the broad appeal of college basketball. He is an everyman, a gym rat who embraces the rah-rah spirit of the college game and clutches the dream of March.

That is reflective of all the participants, most at the apex of their basketball careers. Their athletic journeys never will be better than this.

The stronger team does not always prevail because of the single-elimination dimension, which only adds to the inexorable pull of the event. It grabs you and does not let go until the first Monday night in April.

Duke, Connecticut, Villanova and Memphis each earned a No. 1 seed, a distinction that comes with a qualifier. Never have all the No. 1 seeds advanced to the Final Four.

After all, their seeds are based on a four-month season, as opposed to their response in a seesaw affair in the waning minutes, with their basketball fate hanging in the balance.

How a team reacts to the all-or-nothing proposition is one of the unknowable elements of the tournament.

Gonzaga has been lurking on the periphery of the national powers, not unlike George Washington. Both schools have fashioned impressive seasons against the backdrop of strength-of-schedule concerns.

The Colonials enter the tournament with a limp and the prospect of a limited Pops Mensah-Bonsu, whose return from a knee injury is expected. The uncertainty enveloping the Colonials came with the exclamation point of a disappointing No. 8 seed.

Gonzaga features a potential lottery pick in the floppy-haired Adam Morrison, a diabetic with some McNamara in him.

Morrison, a junior, has an intriguing combination of size and perimeter skills, which NBA personnel gurus are trying to quantify on the professional level. Is his basketball aptitude compelling enough to compensate for his lack of quickness?

The surprising inclusion of George Mason created what would have been an unthinkable notion going into the season: three local teams in the tournament and not one of them Maryland, four years removed from its national championship.

Georgetown is the best of the local lot but inclined to undermine itself.

If the D.C. region is to have a Sweet 16 team, the Hoyas are the best bet.

Just don’t bet the groceries on it.

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