Wake-up calls. If some teams look a little sluggish in a game that starts at noon, it may be because they got up at the crack of dawn for their team meal. If there's one thing college kids can't stand, it's an early wake-up call. "I have one 8:30 class this semester," says Kansas forward Scot Pollard, "and I'm hating it."
Clashing styles. "It's an oil-and-water thing," says UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "If you see Wisconsin-Green Bay playing Georgetown, that becomes interesting. But if Princeton is playing Villanova, that doesn't have as much potential, because Villanova runs tremendous half-court offense." Following Calhoun's dictum, keep an eye on Princeton facing UCLA, Drexel against Memphis and Kentucky's possible second-round matchup with Wisconsin-Green Bay, which outscored the Cats for a half last December.
What types of teams are most vulnerable to being upset? "Ones plagued by inconsistency throughout the season." says UCLA coach Jim Harrick. "Ones that seem to play to the level of their competition. Ones that struggle in the half-court sometimes.
"Gee," Harrick adds with a furrowed look. "We seem to fall into every category."
The careful tournament observer will notice that the officiating in the first round is uneven. To staff the 32 games, the NCAA has to muster 96 referees, and there aren't half that many first-rate zebras in captivity. Further, consider the circumstances in each of those early games: Three refs from different parts of the country, who probably have never worked with one another, are put together to officiate a game between two teams they might never have seen before. Meanwhile, the officials are competing among themselves, in a tournament within the tournament, to advance to the next round. None of this makes for good whistling.
But the refereeing gets better as the tournament progresses. NCAA officiating coordinator Hank Nichols, along with a panel of observers at each site, works with the same NCAA committee that chose the teams to pare down the 96 opening-round refs to the best 40 for the regionals, and ultimately to the zebras' equivalent of the Final Four: the Final Three who will work the championship game on April 1 at the Meadowlands.
Some of these favorites are sentimental, some otherwise. But if you happen to be casting about for a team to root for, here are some candidates to consider:
•Purdue. Next year the Boilermakers welcome a superb recruiting class, so avoid the rush and pull now for an oxymoron, a top-seeded Cinderella, with the best coach, Gene Ready, never to reach the Final Four.