Thursday, March 24, 2011

*Bringing the Madness North of the Border


    I am a walking maple flavoured stereotype. I have a beard and a lumberjack's jacket, I love beer, I'm polite, witty, and I only pretend to know about sports other than hockey. I might know a little more than your average Bob and Doug, but only because it's my job to. I know hockey because I love hockey. I grew up on hockey. So how is it that I've come to be captivated by the distinctly American spectacle that is the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament? Well, it's not hard, so take notes.

    Basketball was a sport I never much bought into as a kid. I would watch the Jorden-led Bulls, as did anyone with a working set of lookin' balls in that era, but it wasn't a sport I was personally invested in. The Raptors didn't hit the scene until I was in about the sixth grade, and it wasn't until "Vinsanity" that I started to take notice. Over the years though, and particularly since Colangelo took the helm, the Raptors have made their way into my heart. 

    This year is an especially hurting edition of the team, but there is a glut of young talent there that is ready to take the next step. The Dinos are currently looking at a bottom-five finish and a potential lottery pick for this year's draft, which instantly drew some intrigue to college ball for me. I want to know who these young guys are. I want to have an idea of who the Raps could get their claws on come draft day, and thus the seed was planted. 

     Step one for anyone like me, who have never followed March Madness to any serious degree, is to fill out a bracket of your own. You don't have to know much about the teams, they're all ranked, and you just take a few gambles on the inevitable upsets. Joining a pool, or at least having friends to compare brackets with, will instantly push you to follow what is happening on a night to night basis, and you'll find yourself watching games and highlights on the regular. 

    There is no way to not enjoy NCAA basketball. It's like watching "Lost"; you get one episode in and you have to know how the whole series ends. The amount of nail-biting finishes and unlikely upsets are enough to keep even the most casual hoops fan screaming at the television. This year has brought a healthy abundance of bracket busting underdogs with teams like Butler, Marquette, VCU, Richmond, and Florida State still alive in the sweet sixteen round.

    So why is any of this important? The reason I'm giving you the play by play account of my discovery of March Madness, is because I'm such a stereotypical Canadian fan. So many sports fans north of the border are missing out, as I had been for so many years. 

    It's not like the tourney isn't well-covered either. Over the last few years, the profile of the college game has risen incrementally, with heavy hitter TSN landing the coverage rights this year, after The Score did the heavy lifting of creating inroads to Canadian fans. TSN does a decent job of covering the tournament as a whole, by simulcasting several American feeds at once. It's very court-surfing-esque, and gives you a great overview, with high entertainment value. It's just not shoved down your throat the way it is when TSN are covering puck.

    This year the NCAA tournament featured a record number of Canucks, several of whom were impact players for their teams. It's imperative to the national program that the foundation be laid for young Canadians to be successful in a sport other than hockey. There's no shortage of hockey heroes for kids to look up to in this country. Everybody in Canada knows somebody in the NHL. What we don't have is legitimate hoops icons. Beyond Steve Nash it's pretty slim pickings. People like Robert Sacre, Tristan Thompson, and Cory Joseph are real NBA prospects, and represent a new wave of improved Canadian contribution to the sport.

    The NCAA has after all begun introducing select Canadian universities in lower divisions. Just saying.

    March Madness is one of the most exciting tournaments in sports, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be a more mainstream fixture in the culture here. It takes a bit of a mental effort to introduce a new major sporting event to your normal routine. Many of us in the Toronto area are so deeply entrenched in Leaf fever that it's hard to concentrate on anything else. You can't blame us, we're Canadian. 


     After teams like Texas and Pitt crushed my, and many others' brackets, I decided to give my picks a facelift. Here's who I've got for the sweet sixteen:

Duke over Arizona - Arizona won't be able to keep the magic alive against the West's top ranked team. Duke's shut down D will take the wind out of their sails.

UConn over San Diego State - Kemba Walker will have another big game. San Diego will get a case of the "i'm-just-happy-to-be-heres" despite great team toughness.

Ohio State over Kentucky - This one will be a barn-burner, two talented teams. Ohio State is the nation's best for a reason, I like them in the clutch.

North Carolina over Marquette - UNC is too talented, and too strong in the front court.

Kansas over Richmond - Richmond has had an epic run, but neither of the first two opponents were in the class of Kansas.

VCU over Florida State - VCU has been dominant thus far, it's hard to see that momentum slowing down.

Wisconsin over Butler - Butler is the trendy pick as an upset because of their run to the finals last year, but Wisconsin is a smart, responsible team who will force Butler to play their game.

Florida over BYU - Jimmer Fredette will Jimmer Fre-durp. He's an amazing player and can take over a game, but the well-coached Gators will focus more on his supporting cast and the offence will dry up.


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