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Make Much of March Madness

Dan Dunn

Is your ear close to the ground? Can you hear the murmur, the rumble, the approaching roar? The NCAA Basketball Tournament is coming.

For those of us who are closer to the armchair than the court, the month of March is one of the more exciting of the year. Yes, I did just write a column about baseball's spring training, but the sports section needs more pages anyway. And I need something to carry me through to Opening Day.

How excited am I about the tourney? Some would definitely describe me as having a medical condition. A few years ago at this time of year I was living in an apartment in Cambridgeport, down by the BU Bridge. I had discharged all of my responsibilities for the weekend, and was ready to settle in for four days of unrelenting basketball. My roommate and I sat down on the futon a few minutes before tip-off and turned on the TV. We had every channel except for ESPN, which was total static.

I doubt the guy who answered the repair and complaint line will ever forget that phone call. I certainly won't. And the repairman was there so quickly that we only missed the first half of the first game.

This NCAA fascination of mine is out of character. I usually only follow sports that I can play, and I certainly don't play basketball well. I don't like watching the NBA. What is it that makes college basketball so appealing to me?

Most of all, I love the emotion that the players feel and show. You rarely see such emotion from professional athletes.

It seems like these students should be less involved. This sport isn't actually their life; theoretically they have classes and academics to attend to as well. A professional has one thing: his sport. But for whatever reason, college athletes are less jaded. They pour their souls into the performance of their team.

Two years ago, while the tournament was in full swing, I happened to be in London, Ontario, visiting some fraternity brothers at the University of Western Ontario. I was all set to watch the tourney. They knew that I was waiting for it and, just to tease me, they outvoted my pleas and watched a different channel. In particular, they made me watch the World Junior Curling Championship - Canada versus some Scandinavian country. When the curling was over, they relented and changed to basketball. Most of them stood to leave, but hung around for a minute as the second half of underdog Princeton against defending champion UCLA began.

As the half went on, they sat back down, one by one. They were transfixed by the performance of the severely under-talented Princeton team as it simply outplayed UCLA. Princeton controlled the pace, and the score swung back and forth. In the end, Princeton pulled off the win and went on to the next round of the tournament.

That game made my Canadian friends reconsider all the jokes they had made before. They watched people play as if their lives hung in the balance, not just a paycheck. They saw the passion and excitement that makes the tournament so exciting.

So who is playing this year? Who is going to be providing the adrenaline and tears? Selection for the tourney has already begun. The guaranteed way into the tournament is to win your league's championship. There are 30 leagues with that privilege, and those tournaments are in full swing.

The rest of the spots are determined by a committee. This committee does not have an enviable job. The teams' schedules vary widely. The committee has to compare the team with a 29-0 record against patsies to the team that is 16-12 against the top ten teams in the country. One of the tools that this committee uses is the fabled Rating Percentage Index. The RPI takes into account schedule and wins, rather than one or the other.

The selection committee will be meeting this weekend and watching the league championships finish up. As they watch, they will consult their rankings, ratings, and RPIs, and fill out the list of the 64 teams that will give us some of the more exciting days of the sports year. Sunday, it all begins.