By JOE HENDERSON | The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA, Fla. – Three years ago on Selection Sunday for the NCAA tournament, it looked for all the world like the committee was ready to call it a day when it found eight teams were left over.
“Uh, fellas? Better call the restaurant and tell them we might be late. We have a problem. What do we do with these other guys?”
“Wait a minute … Tampa needs teams.”
Thus, against the unrelenting pressure of dinner reservations, the field of “who the heck are they?” was sent to Tampa along with the sound of crickets and the stifling of yawns.
For a few days at least, until they actually started playing games, we were Grump City.
But this time?
This field that is headed to the Forum this time for Thursday and Saturday’s fun is already a blowout winner in the all-important star power category.
Five of the eight head coaches have a combined three national titles and 16 Final Four appearances. Add one more to that total if UAB wins its first-round game. Blazers coach Mike Davis once took Indiana to the Final Four.
We haven’t even factored in that this is UCLA’s first tournament appearance since the death of legendary coach John Wooden.
Two of the coaches – Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and West Virginia’s Bob Huggins – took their teams to the Final Four last year. Florida’s Billy Donovan and UCLA’s Ben Howland last made the trip three years ago. John Calipari of Kentucky was there two years ago with Memphis State.
Wait a minute … some NCAA official in wraparound shades just tapped me on the shoulder. He is not smiling.
He is ordering me to repeat after him: Calipari never made that trip to the championship game. I could have sworn I saw him there (ouch, that hurts!) but you’ll find no mention of it in NCAA record books (don’t taze me, bro!), nor will you note the time in 1996 that he was on the sideline when Massachusetts went.
Those appearances were, ahem, vacated because of rules violations, and we will speak no more of it.
That grinding you hear will be the collective teeth of fourth-seeded Kentucky, wondering why Florida got a No. 2 seed here after Big Blue beat the Gators two out of three. That includes Sunday in the SEC tournament final.
Just ’cause, that’s why.
Assuming they dispatch the Gauchos of UC Santa Barbara, Billy Donovan is guaranteed a rematch against a coach he’s faced for the national title – Izzo or Howland.
You also could have a rematch of last year’s region final if Kentucky and West Virginia win their opening games. By the way, those champagne corks you hear popping no doubt belong to Forum officials and local hotel operators. With Kentucky in the field, the demand for tickets and rooms probably just doubled.
What’s that you say?
You like upsets?
That takes us back to the last time this tournament was held here. Did I say it was Grump City after organizers got a look at a field that included Western Kentucky, Drake, San Diego and Siena? Star power? Clemson and UConn were the best of the lot.
OK, so we were totally wrong. There were four games that first day, four upsets. Every time you thought it couldn’t get better, it did. It was just about the best day of basketball anyone could remember seeing.
That doesn’t mean this year’s grouping will come close to rivaling that improbable outcome, but giants will fall here. That’s already certain.
Ah, but what’s an NCAA tournament without some little guy blowing up a million brackets across the land? Since I’m not feeling it for Santa Barbara, the best chance for “holy moly!” might be Kentucky’s game with Princeton.
Ask UCLA how much fun it is to play the Tigers. The Bruins can tell you about the 1996 first-round game when Princeton beat the defending national champions from Westwood. Then, as now, Princeton was seeded 13th and playing against a No. 4 seed.
Once again, it’s time to care about teams you might know nothing about. Get those brackets printed and listen to all the talk shows, even if the smart bet is to do the opposite of what the experts say.
It’s the NCAA tournament. Just take a look at who’s coming to play.
Yowza! No grumps allowed.