By David Hein
|Gonzaga forward Elias Harris already has senior national team experience with Germany|
U.S. collegiate basketball bursts into the public spotlight starting this week as the NCAA Tournament tips off with the first of four play-in games on March 19 - the true start of "March Madness" as the "Big Dance" is about to tip-off with a fair share of Europeans on hand as well.
Sixty-eight teams enter the week with the dream of cutting down the nets after the NCAA Tournament Championship Game on 8 April at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
For the eighth time overall and third time since the 2008 tournament, the reigning champions will not be back to defend their crown - this time the 2012 winners Kentucky are missing the tournament.
After a topsy-turvy season in the college game, Big East Conference champions Louisville enter the nearly three-week spectacle as the top seed and were joined by Kansas, Indiana and Gonzaga in getting the four No. 1 seeds in the four regional tournaments.
The field is determined in two ways. Thirty of the 68 teams reach the tournament by winning the post-season conference tournament. This method sometimes is questioned as it's the conference tournament winner that gets the automatic bid and not the conference regular season champion.
This season for example Liberty made it into the NCAA tourney by beating Charleston Southern in the Big South Conference title game. But they reached the "Big Dance" despite a 15-20 record - making the Flames the second team since Coppin State in 2008 to make the field with 20 or more defeats while the .429 winning percentage is the lowest for a NCAA tournament team since Oakland was 12-18 (.400) in 2005.
The conference tournament automatic bid has allowed many underwhelming teams to reach the NCAA tournament in the past, giving them the feeling of being Cinderella at the "Big Dance".
The Ivy League is the only one of the 31 conferences which does not play a post-season conference tournament, meaning the Ivy League regular season champs book their spot in the dance.
The other 37 spots are chosen by the Selection Committee - a group of conference commissioners and collegiate athletic directors appointed by the NCAA to select the teams and set their seedings. The committee looks at various criteria including strength of schedule and quality wins or losses against lower level teams. A number of teams "on the bubble" always feel they should have earned a spot in the tournament - this season Iowa and Maryland being two of the main teams on the outside looking in.
The 68 teams are broken into the Midwest, West, South and East regional mini-tournaments. The first four teams will be eliminated this week with four play-in games to determine the final 64-team bracket.
This Thursday and Friday will be spent cutting the field to 32 and Saturday and Sunday will trim the bracket to the "Sweet 16", which takes place on 28-29 March. The quarter-finals - known more affectionately as the "Elite Eight" - will be played on 30-31 March.
The final four will be held in Atlanta, with the semi-finals taking place on Saturday, 6 April and the big final two days later on Monday, 8 April.
The popularity of the NCAA Tournament grew massively starting with the 1979 Final Four where Michigan State and Ervin "Magic" Johnson took on Indiana State with Larry Bird in the final.
The introduction of television assisted in the growth as well.
The term "March Madness" stems from the number of upsets that usually accompany the tournament. No number 16 seed has ever beaten a top seed while six No. 15s have knocked off No. 2 seeds, including Lehigh over Duke in 2012.
Another part of the popularity of the NCAA Tournament is filling out the 68-team bracket - something which millions of non-basketball fans partake in the United States to be part of the "Madness".
The lowest seed to win the title was No. 8 Villanova in 1985 while four No. 1 seeds have reached the Final Four just once - in 2008 - and no No. 1s advanced to the semis three times, including 2011.
Most of the teams in the field have a European connection - with more than 15 European nations represented.
|Przemyslaw Karnowski, the MVP of the 2011 U18 All Star Game is a teammate of Elias Harris at Gonzaga|
Florida Gulf Coast has three Europeans with Switzerland's Christophe Varidel, Filip Cvjeticanin of Croatia and German Alexander Blessig; while Western Kentucky has Turkey's Kevin Kaspar and Aleksejs Rostovs, a bronze medal winner at the U18 European Championship 2010 with Latvia.
The NCAA tournament will also include Valparaiso's Kevin van Wijk of the Netherlands, Poland's Tomasz Gielo of Liberty, James Madison's Andrey Semenov of Russia and Belgian Thomas de Thaey of North Carolina State.