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Bob Ryan

Something for all as NCAA unfolds

Michigan players rejoiced after seeing their team included in the 65-team field. The Wolverines ended an 11-year NCAA Tournament drought. Michigan players rejoiced after seeing their team included in the 65-team field. The Wolverines ended an 11-year NCAA Tournament drought. (tony ding/associated press)
By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / March 16, 2009
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You'll get no "objectivity" here. The NCAA Tournament is my favorite thing in sport.

"American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" aside, it is America's last communal event. Ed Sullivan is dead and no one watches the Miss America pageant anymore. But every office in the land has a bracket pool (illegal though they may be; you think you won't find them in police stations, too?) and some of us even care about the basketball. It's America's answer to the World Cup, with a lot more nuance.

Our direct local connection is Boston College, a very fairly-placed seven seed in the Midwest region. Just being in the tournament is a major achievement for a team that was a consensus 11th pick in ACC preseason prognostications. The Eagles can enter this thing feeling as if they're playing with the proverbial house money. Although they opened as 2 1/2-point underdogs to Friday's opponent, Southern Cal, logic dictates they will advance. And if they bring the A-game that upended North Carolina and Duke they would have to be given a chance to upset Michigan State in the second round.

BC is not going to win the national championship, but for the preponderance of the 65-team field that is not the point. What makes the NCAA Tournament so enthralling and accessible is the fact that there is something in it for everyone.

I liken it to the Boston Marathon.

Most people who run in the Marathon have one goal - to finish. Getting in is a thrill and making it to the finish line is something to talk about for the rest of their lives. That's the way it is for the bottom seeds in the NCAA Tournament. The likes of East Tennessee State, Chattanooga, Radford, Alabama State, Morehead State, Binghamton, Cal State Northridge, Morgan State, Robert Morris, American, Cornell, Stephen F. Austin, and the absolutely lovable lads from North Dakota State are all realistic enough to know they will not be cutting down the nets in Detroit three weeks hence.

But they are already living the dream, and have been since winning their conference tournaments to secure that cherished NCAA bid. This is the greatest week of their lives. They've all been texting their thumbs off, contacting third-grade teachers, old girlfriends, distant cousins and grandparents three time zones away in their excitement. They've already had their reward: they're in. If they're lucky, they'll score off the tap and someone will snap that US 2 ESPN GLAMOUR BOYS 0 photo for the school paper and the yearbook. Then they'll settle down and take their licking from the 1, 2, or 3 seeds like men. Or, maybe not.

Though a 16 seed has yet to defeat a 1 since seeding officially began in 1979, four 15s have toppled 2s (and Belmont lost to Duke by a point last year), while 15 No. 14s have taken down 3s. In both 1986 (Cleveland State over Indiana, Arkansas-Little Rock over Notre Dame) and 1995 (Weber State over Michigan State and Old Dominion over Villanova), it happened twice.

So it pays to keep your eye on that 3-14 game, 'cause you never know.

The second tier of the Marathon field is comprised of good, solid runners whose goal is to set a personal best. The NCAA's equivalent are the good, solid teams whose reasonable goal is to make the round of 16. They can dream about the Final Four, but, frankly, they know better. Most teams seeded 12th or higher, if told before the tournament began they'd max out by making the round of 16, would say, "Where do I sign up?"

Finally, the Marathon has its elite runners, perhaps 30 in number, who have not come merely to participate or break three hours, but to win. They are placed in their own separate group because they are the chosen ones. In the NCAA Tournament we are talking about the relatively few teams good enough, deep enough, tough enough, and well-coached enough to win the six games necessary to become champion. The number varies annually, of course. This year I would say the number is relatively large, say, seven. Take a good look at your No. 3 seeds. Does anyone honestly think Villanova, Missouri, Syracuse, or Kansas are championship material? I'd even throw 2-seed Michigan State into that group.

This is not to say there cannot be a mystery guest or two crashing the party and getting into the Final Four. I'm a big proponent of the mystery guest theory when it comes to identifying the makeup of the Final Four. But the last true Mystery Guest to go all the way was Arizona in 1997, at least in my view. It would be a surprise bordering on severe shock if someone other than Louisville, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, North Carolina, Memphis, Duke, or Oklahoma became the 2009 national champion.

That won't stop us from trying to find a sexy outsider for our bracket. Gonzaga, for example. The Bulldogs, Zags, or whatever we like to call them have been a colossal tease for the past half-dozen years. Now they come at us again, in the tournament for the 11th straight year, this time under-seeded at 4. They have won 19 out of 20, the only loss to Memphis. They are said to be more defensive-minded and just plain tougher than any of their predecessors. They'd have to beat North Carolina and Oklahoma, but they might be worth a checkmark coming out of the South.

At the next level, watch out for Colonial Athletic Association champ Virginia Commonwealth. They've got a big-time guard in Eric Maynor (22 ppg), and big-time guards often have their way in this tournament in the early rounds. They've also got a legit inside presence in Larry Sanders and they defend. George Mason came out of this league to shock the world three years ago, and while the CAA is not going to produce a pair of Final Four participants in the span of four tournaments, it would not be a surprise bordering on shock if the Rams beat UCLA and Villanova to get themselves into the TD Banknorth Garden at our very own Regional.

The beauty of the NCAA Tournament is that each weekend has its own flavor, and very often the best stuff goes on in the opening rounds. As Leon Spinks might have said, the Big Boys are gonna do what the Big Boys are gonna do, but not all of them. There will be young men and little-known teams making names for themselves, even as the chalk teams plod their way into the Regionals and Final Four. If you've got a ticket to that Regional taking place here a week from Thursday, I promise the teams here won't be seeds 1 through 4.

But whoever they are, they'll deserve to be here.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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