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In the belly of the madness: A bar on the trendy South Side of Pittsburgh, host city to one of the NCAA tournament's eight subregionals. A wall full of beer taps, a menu flush with colossal sandwiches to soak up the hops and a bank of three televisions staring back at patrons from above the bar. It is Friday evening, and the 2012 tournament has finally begun to gather momentum. After a long, quiet Thursday in which the only real emotion came from Syracuse's narrow escape against 16th-seeded North Carolina--Asheville, No. 15 seed Norfolk State has shaken the nation by confidently taking down No. 2 seed Missouri. The Spartans are the first 15th seed to win a game in 11 years. Now, the patrons at the bar—after cramming to learn about Billikens and Bobcats and bookmarking analytics websites they can barely decipher—are hungry for more. They want to see more high-seeded blood spilled.
Most eyes are on the screen to the left, where No. 13 Ohio, the Mid-American Conference tournament winner, is in control against fourth-seeded Michigan. In the middle, Saint Mary's and Purdue are playing a seven-versus-10 game to a relative lack of interest. But then the screen on the far right suddenly owns the room. "Duke is getting beat," barks a guy. A buzz builds as diners abandon their forks and stream into the bar area to watch 15th-seeded Lehigh, from the Patriot League, hold on against the mighty Blue Devils. Sodden roars go up with each Lehigh basket and each Duke miss until the 75--70 victory is secure, and then quickly the crowd disperses into the night, as if they are players and they have another game the next day. Which, of course, they are. And they do.
The madness can't begin until a very high seed has been toppled by a much lower seed. Until a powerhouse college with a football team that plays its games in a stadium the size of the Pentagon loses to a college that doesn't have a football program at all. Or until a team whose best players are televised more than the Real Housewives is beaten by a team whose stars were overlooked by recruiters and thus now have something to prove on the biggest possible stage.
And America needs these upsets, because without them, college basketball becomes much less cuddly. Without it, you only have games like last Saturday's round of 32 East Regional matchup of two power-conference teams that each had a key player recently declared ineligible (Syracuse sophomore center Fab Melo, reportedly for an academic issue on the opening day of the tournament; Kansas State senior forward Jamar Samuels, whose former AAU coach reportedly wired him $200 for "food" on March 12 because the Wildcats' athletic scholarships apparently don't include the customary meal plans or stipends). Or any game in which No. 1 overall seed and prohibitive favorite Kentucky trots out a raft of players doing their gap year before entering the NBA.
The upsets cleanse the event and make it safe for the power-on-power weekends that often follow. Upsets like Norfolk State's 86--84 win over Missouri, in which the Spartans rode the 26 points and 14 rebounds from 6'10" senior Kyle O'Quinn, who didn't play organized basketball until his junior year at Campus Magnet High in New York City (the same building in which Bob Cousy played, when it was called Andrew Jackson High). After the shocker O'Quinn ran into the locker room yelling, "We messed up some brackets! We even messed up my bracket."
Or like Lehigh's defeat of Duke, in which the Mountain Hawks from Bethlehem, Pa., were led by junior guard C.J. McCollum, who once dreamed of playing for North Carolina. Upon seeing Tar Heels forward Harrison Barnes before the game (UNC was in the same eight-team subregional in Greensboro, N.C.), McCollum advised him, "Tell your fans to stick around; I'm about to put on a show," and then dropped 30 on Coach K's boys. Only four No. 15 seeds had won a game since the NCAA field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985 and none since 2001. Never had it happened twice in the same year, let alone on the same day, in a span of about three hours. Both the Spartans (crushed by Florida 84--50) and the Mountain Hawks (ousted by No. 10 seed Xavier 70--58) were gone on Sunday, but that didn't matter. They had served their purpose: By killing the title hopes of Missouri and Duke, the fiesty 15s had brought the tournament to life.
As Sunday turned into Monday and the tournament at last took pause, all four No. 1 seeds had reached the Sweet 16, though they arrived with varying degrees of promise.
Kentucky, bidding to win its eighth title and its first since 1998, rolled through two games close to home in Louisville, first drilling No. 16 Western Kentucky by 15 and then pushing aside Iowa State 87--71, so frustrating the Cyclones that übercool coach Fred Hoiberg drew his first career technical. The closest thing to a crisis for Kentucky came on the Wednesday before the subregional, when Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni resigned and the Wildcats' John Calipari took to Twitter about 45 seconds later to shoot down any rumors that he'd be interested in returning to the NBA. "I have the greatest job in basketball at any level," tweeted Coach Cal. In Atlanta the Wildcats will play Indiana, which on Dec. 10, handed Kentucky one of their two defeats this season. Young and unfiltered, the Cats see a clear path to New Orleans. "This is a scary team, if you ask me," said 6'7" freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist after the Iowa State win, sitting at his locker amid the wild, rock-star vibe that surrounds Kentucky, especially in March. He will be asked again.
Syracuse, meanwhile, escaped 72--65 against Asheville and then punished a decent Kansas State squad that had been left too thin by the loss of Samuels. Few teams could weather the departure of a defensive force like the 7-foot Melo (whose absence is illustrated by an empty spot in the Orange's sneaker suitcase, a massive black road bag with bins for each player's kicks). But Syracuse is exceptionally deep. "I've done something this year in practice that I've never done before," said coach Jim Boeheim after the 75--59 win over Kansas State. "I have two full first teams, five on and five off." They play against an exhausted group of walk-ons and deep reserves. Senior point guard Scoop Jardine rarely sits, however, and he scored 16 points with three key three-pointers in the round of 32, as the Orange continued to weather turbulence—sexual abuse allegations against former assistant Bernie Fine (which he denies), reports of former players' failed drug tests, Melo's abrupt departure.
Michigan State reached the final 16 by quelling a late Saint Louis rally when sophomore guard Keith Appling made a three with 1:34 left off a drive-and-dish from 6'7" senior Draymond Green, who is trying to reach his third Final Four in four years. Green had 16 points, 13 rebounds and six assists against the Billikens and at halftime got in Appling's face, willing Appling to bury five of seven attempts after the break in a 65--61 victory. "I was yelling at him to shoot the ball," said Green. "If Keith don't hit those shots, we don't win."