It's time for March Madness

If there was no such thing as the Super Bowl, college basketball's NCAA Tournament would be the most popular sporting event in America. This week millions of people across the country will be filling out their brackets, searching for Cinderellas and trying to pinpoint who will be this year's national champion. Sunday afternoon we will all know who the 65 teams are that have been invited to the Big Dance. March Madness is officially taking over.

Last year George Mason was the darling of the tournament, surprising everyone by going all the way to the Final Four. Now, it will be interesting to see how many teams from Mason's Colonial Athletic Association are part of the field. Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion and Drexel all deserve to be there.

It will also be interesting to learn how many teams have been invited from the Missouri Valley Conference. Last season both Bradley and Wichita State reached the Sweet 16, with Wichita State then losing to that white hot George Mason club. Creighton, Southern Illinois and Missouri State are all worthy of bids.

Of course, if the tournament was expanded, all those schools would be included. But the debate goes on as to how many more teams should be added, if any.

There are those that feel that one more full round of games is necessary, tacking on one extra weekend to the tournament, and rounding out the field at 128. But 128 would dilute the field a bit too much.

Some say that 64 teams was good enough in the first place, and that Tuesday's opening round game is meaningless and should be eliminated. But there could always be another George Mason lurking in the shadows that could very well be perceived to be the 65th-best team, from a mid-major conference and not getting enough respect.

A perfect compromise would be to expand the field to 68. Let four teams play on Tuesday with those winners then playing No. 1 seeds on Thursday, and let four teams play Wednesday with those winners playing on Friday. No extra weekend is needed, and more mid-majors would get in the tournament. In the interest of equality, it is only fair that each bracket should have an opening round game.

And speaking of Tuesday's lone opening round game, it should be noted that in its short existence, five times a team with a losing record has qualified for the tournament. Four of those five times, the team with the losing record won that opening round game. Will it happen again?

As for the brackets themselves, nobody really knows who will be in this year's Final Four. Last season UCLA as a No. 2 seed, Florida as a No. 3, LSU as a No. 4 and George Mason as a No. 11 all made it. Out of 3 million entries in ESPN's contest, only two got all four correct.

If you are looking at the conference tourneys for guidance, note that last year Florida and UCLA won theirs, LSU lost to Florida in the semi-finals of the Southeastern Conference, and Mason lost in the semis of the Colonial. Teams can come from anywhere, but in each of the last eight seasons, two teams from the same conference have reached the Final Four.

The NCAA Tournament moves quickly, starting on the 13th and ending on April 2nd. The first round is the best, with those Cinderellas stealing the spotlight. It's the perfect time to take two days off of work if you've got them coming, or come down with a mysterious illness. It's always well worth it.

Note: Because of the NCAA Tournament schedule, the sports betting column will appear in Thursday's edition of the Nevada Appeal for the next two weeks.

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