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This is what could happen: In some distant future the NCAA tournament will have grown too large. It will have been expanded and transformed into a test of playing and viewing stamina, devoid of charm, leaving fans exhausted long before some as-yet-unborn pop star sings some as-yet-unwritten ballad while confetti streams from the roof of a football stadium as a new champion is crowned. Television ratings will have crashed, public interest will have cratered, and earnest bodies will gather in pristine conference rooms to ask themselves in desperation, Where did we go wrong?
And then old souls will flip back through digital history until they reach March 2010. When they come to the third weekend they will tap the screen with withered fingers and purse their lips in recognition. Because that's when the tournament was perfect. That's when it was as good as it could be.
There were two shots at the center of that weekend, launched five hours and 1,630 miles apart on Saturday, the first day of spring. The first was in Providence, where junior point guard Mickey McConnell of St. Mary's in Moraga, Calif., briefly lost Villanova's Reggie Redding with a crossover, squared up and accidentally banked in a 25-footer with 76 seconds to play. McConnell's heave gave the 10th-seeded Gaels a three-point lead they would not relinquish in taking down a second-seeded Big East power that had been to the Final Four a year ago and ranked among the nation's top teams for most of this season.
The next shot was more accurate, less prudent and indisputably seismic. Throughout most of the second-round game in Oklahoma City, Northern Iowa had dominated Kansas, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, but with 42.8 seconds left the Jayhawks had rallied to within one point. The Panthers, a ninth seed, successfully inbounded under their basket against withering pressure. Four passes later 6-foot senior guard Ali Farokhmanesh came to a stop with the ball, alone just outside the three-point line with a deafening chorus of basketball common sense dictating that he keep his dribble and kill as much of the clock as he could. Instead Farokhmanesh let fly and swished a finishing three. Suddenly Kansas was dead. And the tournament had never been more alive.
In the weeks leading up to the 2010 tournament, reports were widespread that by next year the field would expand from 65 to 96 teams. Rumors about expansion have heated up because between now and July 31 the NCAA can opt out of the final three years of its 11-year, $6 billion television contract with CBS. The NCAA is already considering multiple bids—all predicated on there being a larger field—for as long as 14 years and for what it hopes will be significantly more money. The tournament is by far the organization's largest source of revenue; the more games there are, the bigger the TV contract. So once the field grows to 96 teams, why assume it would stop there? (Why not a round of 128? Or 256? Why not all 347 schools in Division I?)
Yet between last Thursday and Sunday the tournament screamed out to remain untouched, with daylong demonstrations of why it is the most pitch-perfect sporting event in America. Nineteen of the 48 games were decided in the final minute of play, and of the 16 teams that advanced to this weekend's regionals, eight were seeded fourth or lower and four were seeded ninth or lower. Three No. 1 seeds and three No. 2s remained, but when the anonymous star of an unknown entry, in this case 6'11" senior center Omar Samhan of St. Mary's, said with conviction, "We believe we're the best team in the country," it was perilous to dismiss him.
The Big Dance provides a perfect storm of one-game competitive balance (if not quite parity) that allows Ohio Valley Conference champion Murray State to knock off SEC stalwart Vanderbilt on the first afternoon of the tournament, when senior forward Danero Thomas hits a pull-up 15-footer at the horn. And that allows Ohio, the ninth seed in the Mid-American Conference tournament, to thrash Big East beast Georgetown later that same night, behind freshman point guard D.J. Cooper and 23-year-old, three-college (Indiana, UAB, Ohio) junior guard Armon Bassett, who said the next day, "I've been playing against guys like [the Hoyas] my whole life." Even if the Bobcats were gone by Saturday, they had taken some big names with them.
Not only was last weekend one of the best in the 71-year history of the tournament (and in the quarter century of the 64- or 65-team field), but it also kept such diversity alive. Five mid-major teams remain standing, and 11 conferences are represented in the Sweet 16, which feels almost like a second first weekend.
No team better represents the appeal of the underdog than Cornell, at No. 12 the lowest seed remaining, but that's a bit of a con. The Big Red gets to revel in the love afforded a brainy Ivy League school while knowing this squad is something much more substantial. Cornell has six seniors in an eight-man rotation, 72 wins in the last three years and three NCAA appearances under 10-year head coach Steve Donahue. "Coming into this year," says senior Ryan Wittman, the Ivy League's player of the year, "we expected to do some damage."
Wittman & Co. are 29--4, including a narrow December loss at Kansas, and they've trounced Temple (78--65) and Wisconsin (87--69) in the first two rounds of the tournament. Wittman (the son of former Indiana and NBA player Randy) is a 6'7" small forward who can shoot—and create space to shoot—as well as the best players in the power conferences. Senior center Jeff Foote is 7-footer who landed in Ithaca largely because he grew from 6'4" to 6'9" after his junior year at Spencer--Van Etten (N.Y.) High and his coordination caught up much later. "There was stuff I couldn't do that I used to be able do well," Foote says. "Like dribble, shoot, run."