Let the games begin

Marvin Westwestwords

Hear ye, hear ye, make way for the greatest show on Earth.

No, not the circus. PETA says it is passé. We’re talking about March Madness. It is upon us.

NCAA basketball is very big. From selection arguments to leftover debates, it runs for three weeks and more. It is bigger than the Super Bowl and World Series combined. It consumes many of us. Productivity lags. Corporate losses will be roughly $1.9 billion while we are distracted. Brackets, hearts and TV fronts will get broken.

Even if it is casual, dollar limit, betting is the in-thing. And cheering. And consternation.

Sixty-eight teams were invited. That crowd shakes down to the Final Four, greatest Saturday in sports. It is at least phenomenal and maybe fantastic and marvelous, too. The mountaintop awaits. Unbridled passion peaks, even though the show always ends badly for all but one team.

The tournament is compelling. For a little while, we can forget the dark underbelly, cheating in recruiting, even the FBI investigation of shoe people, coaches, agents and bribery. Basketball is so beautiful and there is nothing like the ultimate triumph, one shining moment, cut down the nets.

This time of year, for the rest of the way, basketball is real serious stuff. Boys of the street will tell you it ain’t just hangin’ around, doing corner jive.

Inspirational coaching quotes provide perspective:

“What you lack in talent can be made up with desire.”

“Believe that every rebound, every loose ball has your name on it.”

“There are only two options regarding commitment. You’re either in or you’re out.”

“The only important statistic is the final score.”

“Never give up. Never, ever give up.”

March Madness is sometimes unfair. One little piece of bad luck, a missed layup, an unfortunate turnover, an erroneous call, can completely undo brilliant strategy, months of hard work, years of preparation, a lifetime of dreams.

The tournament is brutally blunt. No do-overs. Survive and advance. Lose and go home.

It is also the stuff of miracles and magic. Just think about last year, Loyola-Chicago and that beloved good-luck charm, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, age 98.

University of Maryland-Baltimore County has some believers. The Retrievers, 20.5-point underdogs, became the first No. 16 seed in forever to knock off the tournament favorite. Audacity personified. Virginia took the fall. It was glorious for little guys everywhere.

It has been said that basketball is truly an amazing game. Fans want to coach. Coaches want to officiate. Officials want to just stand around and watch. Sometimes they go to the monitor for more face time.

Because of a really great group, Rick Barnes, Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone, Tennessee is in, second seed, south regional, Columbus, Ohio.

Is Columbus now in the south?

The Vols come out to play on Friday against the toothpaste team. Taste may be questionable but Colgate can shoot the three-ball. Beware.

Unfairly again, the tournament is the real season, the main event. New start. It is now supposedly OK to forget the humbling loss to Auburn. I choose to count the 29 victories.

The Vols have a critical element for tournament play: good guards. Unfortunately, they lack great size and superior depth. Odds on prevailing are long, but the players keep saying their goal is the championship. Getting close would cover new ground.

Tennessee has been a minor part of previous madness 21 times. The long-ago format permitted only league champs. Kentucky most often represented the SEC. Tennessee had a few highlights. Alas, the overall record is 20-22.

The Vols scored 121 against Long Beach State in 2007. They got only 48 against Virginia in 1981.

Tennessee took down 53 rebounds against Eastern Kentucky in 1979. They were also foul-prone, 29 against Notre Dame and Furman. The Vols had six turnovers in the high-speed Long Beach game and 26 against Syracuse in 1977.

Bernard King was injured but Ernie Grunfeld scored 36 in a stunning loss to VMI in 1976. This was long before the three-point shot.

Jarnell Stokes had 18 rebounds against Mercer in 2014. Bert Bertelkamp had 16 assists against Maryland in 1980. King scored 23 and had 12 rebounds in the infamous Syracuse game.

Four-seed Tennessee suffered a humiliating loss to Southwest Missouri State, 81-51, in 1999. The Vols hit 29.5 percent.

There was a close shave at Greensboro in 2006. The Vols, seeded second, needed a last-second jumper from Chris Lofton to defeat No. 15 Winthrop, 63-61.

Big win in St. Louis in 2010 – 76-73 over two-seed Ohio State. Brian Williams tipped one in with 32 seconds remaining. Bobby Maze hit a pair of late free throws. J.P. Prince blocked the Buckeyes’ final shot.

Bad loss in Bruce Pearl’s final game – 75-45 to Michigan.

How far have the Vols advanced? UT has made seven trips to the Sweet 16. In 2010, Pearl led the orange team to the Elite Eight, an adventure that ended with a one-point loss to Michigan State. That is the nice way of saying Tennessee has never been to the Final Four.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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