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After a year-long hiatus, March Madness is back

Basketball Notebook

Under the threat of coronavirus, last year’s NCAA basketball tournament was abandoned, leaving a billion dollars in revenue behind and causing a different kind of madness for fans, athletes and athletic programs around the country. A year later, March Madness is back to normal, mostly.

Starting on Thursday, March 18, 68 teams from across the country traveled to Indianapolis, Ind., for three weeks of competitive showcasing of the country’s best non-professional basketball. Despite playing in front of mostly empty stands, the show goes on, filled with dramatic story lines and bracket-busting upsets that fans missed.  

Even without looking at the pandemic-imposed restrictions, the tournament looks different. The famously successful programs of Duke University and Kentucky University, who have a collective 13 NCAA Championships, are not participating. An underwhelming season for both programs, Duke finished 13-11 and also dropped out of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament due to positive COVID tests. Kentucky ended its season 9-16. As a result, both teams watched the tournament from home for the first time since 1976.

Filling that void is an array of teams, well-known or not, that have made fans forget about the loss of last year’s tournament, focusing only on the schedule and box scores unfolding in front of them.

Entering this year’s bracket as the No. 1 seeds are Gonzaga University in the West, the University of Michigan in the East, Baylor University in the South and University of Illinois in the Midwest. Entering the Elite 8, Illinois is the only No. 1 seed to be knocked out, upset by No. 8 Loyola University Chicago 71-58 in the second round on Sunday.

Illinois is not the only team to be upset this year, of course. Most notably, the No. 15 seed Oral Roberts University dispatched No. 2 Ohio State University in the first round, winning in a closely contested 78-75 that was decided in overtime. This win was not only Oral Roberts’ first win in the tournament since 1974, but also just the ninth time a No. 15 seed has been the No.2 seed in 132 chances.

Other upsets included No. 13 Ohio University over No. 4 University of Virginia (62-58 in the first round), ­­No. 12 Oregon State University over the No. 5 University of Tennessee (70-56 in the first round) and No. 11 Syracuse University over No. 6 San Diego State University (78-62 in the first round). Syracuse then went on to continue the upset spree, beating No. 3 seed West Virginia University, 75-72.

 It is almost a relief for me that UConn was eliminated, losing to the University of Maryland 63-54 in the first round. The Huskies were not a true contender this year, and without that added stress, I can sit back and watch the tournament unfold, my loyalties free to fluctuate.

Michigan is my best bet, offering not only winning productions, but a satisfying storyline: making it back to the Sweet 16, this time as the top-seeded program in the East, while being led by Fab 5 legend and now head coach Juwan Howard.

As of Monday, March 29, the eight remaining teams are Michigan versus No. 11 University of California Los Angeles, No. 2 University of Houston versus No. 12 Oregon State University, No. 1 Gonzaga University versus No. 6 University of Southern California, and No. 1 Baylor University matched up against No. 3 University of Arkansas.

With the Championship game scheduled for Monday, April 5, I am sticking with the Wolverines.

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