The NCAA Tournament: Elites Rule, By Bob Ryan


The NCAA Tournament is many things to many people.

I have long regarded it as highly analogous to the Boston Marathon, or any marathon, really. At the top you have the elite runners, the 25 or 30 or so who actually have a chance to win the race. They are placed at the front of the pack at the race’s start in Hopkinson, so as not to be impeded by the hoi polloi. Then you have the large number of pretty decent runners who hope to establish a new personal record, or PR, as the racing jargon goes. And then you have the largest segment, the hordes whose sole goal is to finish the race and be able to brag about it to family, friends and perhaps even enemies.

So it is with the NCAA tournament. There are the very small number of teams who are actually good enough to win the six games in succession necessary to become the new champion. The number varies, but it seldom exceeds eight or ten.Then there are the teams who would not only kill to reach a solitary Final Four, but whose seasons will be well-made just to reach the Regionals, or round of 16. And then there are the minnows, the guys from the one-bid leagues who are just happy to have made the field of 68 and who would be thrilled beyond measure to win a game. In either even it is not necessary to merge as champion for the large preponderance of the participants to come away with a satisfactory experience.

I mean, those are the ground rules.

I love the tournament. March is my favorite time of the sports year. My first awareness came around the age of seven or eight. I recall somehow knowing, probably by reading, that Indiana had won the 1953 title by defeating Kansas. I was definitely aware in 1954 that LaSalle had won because LaSalle was in nearby Philadelphia — I grew up in Trenton, N.J. — and also because my father had worked at Villanova as assistant AD from 1952-54 and I had seen LaSalle play in some of our weekly weekend visits to Philly for games at either the Palestra or Convention Hall. I can say I was present for a very famous match-up of the great Tom Gola of LaSalle and national scoring leader Frank Selvy of Furman. i was very excited for LaSalle when they won the tournament.

The actual tournament was almost an Arthurian legend in those days. Nothing was on television until the late 50s. I recall seeing a replay of the 1960 Ohio State triumph over Cal, but the first time w got to see the Finals live was the 1963 Loyola-Cincinnati game, if I am correct. I was vacationing on spring break en route to Florida with my family in 1964. We stopped in North Carolina and we asked what channel the game between Duke and UCLA would be on. I believe the answer was that it was on every channel. Of course, that couldn’t have been true. Perhaps we just had a witty desk clerk.

I have so many snippets of tourney games in my head that don’t necessarily involve the Final Four. The truth is that while there have been some memorable Final games, (we need go no father than the last one), some of my most vivid memories involved games in the preliminary rounds. I’ll just throw a few out to see if they strike a similar chord with you:

North Carolina-Davidson





And the granddaddy of them all…Duke-Kentucky.

I’m sure every college basketball fans has his or her treasure chest of great tournament moments and experiences.

The team I’m most curious about this year is the team I’ve been most curious about annually for about the last 10 years and that would be Gonzaga. Their run of basketball greatness, if you want to go that far, began with a surprise run to the Final Eight in 1999, when they were the last obstacle between Connecticut and Jim Calhoun’s first trip to the Final Four. That was under coach Don Monson, who obviously figured his ship had come in and he sailed off to Big 10 unfulfillment in Minnesota. The jobs went to his little-known assistant Mark Few, and as he enters the WCC Tournament he has compiled a staggering record of 496-112. They are the ultimate mid-major of mid-majors. They reached the number-once ranking this year for the second time before they were knocked off by BYU. But the tournament has not been particularly kind to them. They have only gone back to the Final Eight once despite all their regular season success. Many feel this is Few’s best team. There is tremendous size and a Player of the Year candidate in Nigel Williams-Goss. The worst they’ll be is a number two seed. so we shall see.

You know, it’s damn hard for someone like Gonzaga to win. The tournament has been dominated by an aristocracy far more than people seem to realize. In fact, 39 of the 78 NCAA titles have been won by just eight schools: UCLA (11), Kentucky (8), Indiana (5), North Carolina (5), Duke (5), Connecticut (4), Kansas (3) and Louisville (3). Only disappointing UConn is not in play this year. Consider that there are 351 D-1 schools, give or take. This means that those eight schools, comprising .023 percent off the pool, have won 50 percent of the available titles. That kind of puts things in perspective. And try this one on for size. Eight of the current Top Ten teams in the AP and USA Today polls have won at least one NCAA title. This includes Oregon, the winner in the 1939 inaugural, of course. The only two non-winners are West Virginia and, yup, Gonzaga But West Virginia is a serious Player. The Mountaineers lost in the 1959 Finals to Cal on a Darrall Imhoff tip at the buzzer and West Virginia has been to the Final Four as recently as 2010.

Gonzaga has swum against the tide for a long time. I wish them the best.


  « Back