DENVER — It was March 2005, in a shoulder-to-shoulder bar in Oklahoma City, when a Kansas fan engaged a Bucknell fan and revealed the essence and unpredictability of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
“Where is Bucknell, anyway?” Kansas Fan said.
“In the second round,” Bucknell Fan replied. “Where’s Kansas?”
There’s justice in sports, sometimes. Not always, but sometimes. And when the bracket for the 2019 NCAA Tournament was revealed on Sunday, justice arrived in a wholly unusual way.
Belmont is in the field that will determine the national champion of college basketball. Arizona, UCLA and Indiana were not. None were big surprises either way. But the finances alone should make such a thing impossible: Belmont, a music school in Nashville, had a recent hoops budget around $2.68 million. Indiana's was $12.8 million. Bit of a difference there, don't you think?
The Bruins from the Ohio Valley Conference — nope, not those Bruins — made this 68-team bracket as an at-large candidate. The Hoosiers from the mighty Big Ten couldn’t get 'er done.
Credit chair Bernard Muir and the selection committee, something I’ve never said this time of year. Sure, there are some quibbles. UNC-Greensboro is a better team than St. John’s, yada, yada, and the West region is too stacked.
But for the most part hoops justice was served — another something that’s rarely said about a showcase that comes with an $8.8 billion TV contract. The golden rule of Selection Sunday: never feel bad for a snubbed power conference team. They had unlimited chances.
And when the games begin Tuesday with the First Four, three other entities should do their part at making the best game going the best game going. Sports media, coaches and the NCAA are obligated to help clean up the mess the FBI has exposed. While sports media’s reporting on the FBI probe has been superb — a good chunk of it from the crack investigators at Yahoo! Sports — its reaction has been downright embarrassing and self-serving.
Whenever another school is linked to the FBI probe, the talking heads default to blaming the NCAA model that doesn’t give the athletes a fair cut. It’s true a superior model is needed. No kidding. But rules are rules, and we shouldn’t absolve the cheaters. Celebrating the Auburns and Arizonas of the game only hurts the guys who prefer to recruit with a moral compass.
Coaches must step forward and call out their colleagues, like Colorado coach Tad Boyle did last season when he said "hell yeah" it means more to beat the cheaters at Arizona. Don’t stop there, guys. Keep on keepin' on. It’s usually the coaches with sturdy job security — like Boyle — who have the huevos to voice what their peers are thinking. If enough coaches do it maybe we’ll finally get somewhere.
And the FBI has afforded the NCAA a blueprint for the who and how. Now do your job, big wigs.
This is another bracket with a distinct lack of Colorado flavor. The Buffs host Dayton in the NIT, and that’s not for nothing. CU should be an NCAA Tournament team next year. What a shame it was to waste the Derrick White season on 15 losses, and the NBA-caliber duo of McKinley Wright IV and Tyler Bey should be hellbent on delivering CU’s first tournament win since 2012. Air Force’s arrow is pointed up, too, with all but one player returning from a group that beat UNLV, San Diego State and Boise State in a span of 11 days. Get 'er done, Coach P.
CSU should be second-guessing its decision to pass on Craig Smith, the sure-fire Mountain West Coach of the Year who has eighth-seeded Utah State in the Big Dance with a fine shot to beat Washington, a team that’s grossly overseeded with a 9. Missed the mark, Rams.
Northern Colorado is cooking with fire (and with Colorado kids, ahem), while the University of Denver’s hoops program is about the only thing on campus that’s not winning. In summary, college basketball around these hills has been better.
Nothing’s better than the NCAA Tournament. Not the Super Bowl, World Series or college football playoff. As a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for just over a decade, not to mention a 30-something without a social life and an unhealthy obsession with Big Mondays, I pretend to have a good handle on who can play and who can’t.
So here’s your Final Four: No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 1 Duke, No. 2 Tennessee and No. 3 Houston.
Use a pencil.