The selection show for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament offered some new wrinkles Sunday afternoon. Rather than agitating television viewers with contrived suspense, TBS agitated viewers with reaction shots of players who, due to satellite problems, were three seconds late to react to the status of their team’s destiny.
When it was revealed that Kansas’ first-round opponent will be Ivy League champions Penn, the camera cued to a dozen Jayhawks players casually monitoring their cell phones, as if they were indifferent to the possibility of suffering the kind of upset Washington pulled off against them in Kansas City.
Moderator Ernie Johnson Jr. was his jovial self, but at the beginning of the broadcast he appeared to be communicating in a foreign-language movie accompanied by subtitles.
Another change in the format was the inclusion of an Atlanta-based studio audience, quite more subdued than the well-lubricated New York fans who used to boo whatever poor soul the Jets selected in the first round of the NFL draft. (I’m not sure why a studio audience is necessary for either event. Having watched the selection show since its inception a few decades ago, I cannot recall thinking: That telecast really could have been enhanced with immediate fan feedback!)
As for the meat and potatoes of the bracket unveiling, there were a few surprises, none startling. The Pac-12 drew just three invitations: Arizona on an automatic bid, and UCLA and Arizona State on play-in bids. USC was snubbed, but then, so were Baylor, Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame and Syracuse.
Gonzaga (30-4) went in as a No. 4 seed in the West Region. The Bulldogs will face North Carolina Greensboro on Thursday in Boise, which means something of a home-court advantage for the Zags.
They’ll need it. UNC Greensboro is 27-7 and won 11 of their last 12 games in claiming the Southern Conference championship. The Spartans gave Virginia, the bracket’s top overall seed, a battle in their season opener, and beat North Carolina State, another tournament team, on the road.
Should Gonzaga advance, a second round match awaits against either North Dakota State or Ohio State, which suffered an 86-59 defeat to the Zags in late November.
This just in: It’s the middle of March. On any college-basketball calendar, late November is the equivalent of mankind’s hunter and gathering era.
The usual suspects in the bracket need no introduction, but some newcomers such as UMBC do. UMBC is an acronym for University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The team is nicknamed the Retrievers, as the state dog of Maryland happens to be the Chesapeake Bay retriever. (Maryland’s official state dog, that is. Its unofficial state dog is Orioles outfielder Mark Trumbo.)
Lipscomb University, out of Nashville, appears in the tournament for the first time. Lipscomb’s teams are known as the Bisons, despite the fact that the plural form of bison is bison. Pronouncing “Bisons” instead of “Bison” will require some practice, and as soon as “Bisons” rolls off the tongue, Lipscomb will be an afterthought.
Keep an eye on the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, whose last NCAA Tournament appearance was in 1985. Loyola won the 1963 national championship, and achieved substantial social progress along the way. An unwritten rule in 1963 held that integrated teams would start no more than two black players. Loyola started four.
The Ramblers first round contest against Mississippi State, which had yet to integrate, was historic for the pregame handshake between a black player and a white player. Mississippi’s governor attempted to prevent the Bulldogs from traveling to compete against integrated opposition, and they had to sneak out, via Memphis, at the 11th hour.
I am wishing the best for Loyala-Chicago, as there will be no local representation in the NCAA tournament. Washington secured an NIT invitation, pitting the Huskies in a first-round game against Boise State at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. The Huskies are seeded fifth, the Broncos are seeded fourth, and they deserved the home game.
But Boise State’s Taco Bell Arena will be occupied this week, presumably by thousands of Gonzaga fans.
We’re here, at last, savoring the heart of the artichoke, girding for the annual madness while trying to remember that the Huskies really did beat Kansas in Kansas City, way back when.
Go Zags. Go Ramblers. Go Bison.