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Josh Newman: 68 thoughts, ramblings and things to ponder as the NCAA Tournament arrives

March Madness will begin Thursday with the four First Four games, followed by the main draw on Friday

(David J. Phillip | AP) Duke and Wisconsin tip off at the NCAA tournament championship game in Indianapolis, Monday, April 6, 2015.

I was asked earlier this week if I wanted to write some sort of a column ahead of the NCAA Tournament beginning on Thursday.

Yes, I do, but then it became a matter of how to go about it. I thought about giving my bracket picks, but no one needs those since I haven’t cashed in a tournament pool in probably 15 years. Offering some sort of bracket advice is a popular play in this spot, but why would anyone take my advice?

Here’s what’s about to happen. I’m winging it. There are 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament, so here are 68 thoughts, ramblings, and things to ponder ahead of the First Four kicking things off on Thursday night in Indianapolis.

My hope is to keep at least 75% of this on topic, but I’m telling you right now, we’re going to veer off course.

Let’s go.

1. There is an NCAA Tournament this March. After last year, that’s awesome.

2. I don’t know that this is Gonzaga’s best team ever, but this is absolutely the program’s best-ever chance to break through and win the whole thing.

3. There is a legitimate chance USC and Oregon play in the Sweet 16, which means the Pac-12 would have at least one team playing in the Elite Eight. Such a scenario would be good for Pac-12 business.

4. When I was 10 in 1993, I led my father’s office pool on the night of the national championship game between Michigan and North Carolina. I had the Wolverines. I wish Chris Webber knew how many timeouts he had.

5. Speaking of Webber, he is a finalist for the Hall of Fame. He belongs in the Hall of Fame, but I suspect he’s not getting in yet again on this, his fifth go-around as a finalist.

6. The New York-born adolescent in me loves that Patrick Ewing coached Georgetown to the Big East Tournament crown last week. The level-headed adult in me knows that doesn’t mean the Hoyas have “turned a corner” under Ewing after four mediocre seasons.

7. If the selection committee was going to have UCLA in the First Four, I would have bet everything I own on two things. One, its First Four game was going to be the latest start possible out of four Thursday games. Two, the game would be played at Purdue’s Mackey Arena, which has a statue of John Wooden out front. Yes, a 6:57 p.m. PDT start, and yes, a trip to West Lafayette. The NCAA has never been accused of trying to reinvent the wheel.

8. BYU is going to catch either UCLA or Michigan State off short rest. I like that first-round draw for the Cougars. A potential second-round matchup vs. Big 12 champion Texas? That’s a tough ask.

9. UConn-Maryland in an East Region first-round game offers some nostalgia. Both perennial contenders through the 90s, both won national titles during my youth. UConn, specifically, had my attention as a kid with those Big East-contending, Jim Calhoun-coached teams throughout the decade.

10. I covered the MAAC for five seasons, but once I left, the league’s most-visible brand, Iona, hired Rick Pitino, and the MAAC Tournament moved to Atlantic City. I feel robbed, and yes, I’m a little bitter about it.

11. Part of the reason I love the NCAA Tournament is because it means warm weather has just arrived, or is coming. Winter fades, spring is upon us, people are enjoying being outside, summer isn’t too far off. This is one of my favorite times of year, and not just because of basketball.

12. There are 16 teams willing to be a part of the NIT in a state with seemingly no COVID restrictions, Texas. Even worse, eight teams signed on for the CBI, which is pay to play, and is taking place in another state seemingly free of believing COVID is a thing, Florida. The NIT is one thing, the pay-to-play CBI is quite another.

13. Conference champions should not be made to play in the First Four.

14. Counterpoint: The brass from low-major conferences that wind up in the First Four every year (NEC, SWAC, MEAC, etc) love it because it is a reasonable chance to win an NCAA Tournament game and, by extension, make more money.

15. Good for Rutgers, which hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1991.

16. Here’s your 5-12 upset: One-loss, Big South champion Winthrop over reeling Villanova, which is without senior guard Collin Gillespie. I know, I know, I wasn’t going to give any advice.

17. Here’s another 5-12 matchup to ponder: UC Santa Barbara, with a roster full of transfers, over Creighton, which got its doors blown off in the Big East title game. This one is more tenuous than the one above, but feels worthy of at least consideration.

18. Ohio junior point guard Jason Preston is one of this NCAA Tournament’s best players you’ve never heard of.

20. The selection committee notoriously has a big-school bias, but it let Drake in this year, while leaving Louisville out. That is a departure from the norm, especially if you look at those two resumes next to each other.

21. When I was in the eighth grade, I received in-school suspension for running a tournament pool. I’d collected a lot of money, which is apparently frowned upon when you’re 13? I won’t even claim ignorance. Product of my environment, no apologies.

22. Why does Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner wear a welder’s helmet on the sideline, but no mask?

23. Thanks in part to a buyout at less than $1.1 million, if a high-major program wants to hire Utah State’s Craig Smith, a high-major program is going to hire Craig Smith. With the Minnesota job now open, keep in mind Smith and his wife are from northern Minnesota and they went to school in the Dakotas.

24. Speaking of Minnesota, Richard Pitino parlayed eight years of mediocrity there into the New Mexico job. Not bad.

25. It’s hard to call what’s going on in Indianapolis a “bubble” when Bloomington and West Lafayette are both at least an hour from Indy proper. Here’s hoping it goes smoothly, but ...

26. Ten percent of the officiating pool, including high-profile names like Ted Valentine, John Higgins and Roger Ayers, have all been sent home after one official tested positive and the rest fell under contact tracing. The cause? Hotel rooms weren’t ready, so they went to dinner.

27. That’s a real problem because, frankly, there is a huge gap between the top tier of refs and everybody else. Valentine, Higgins, and Ayers would have absolutely been in the mix to work the Final Four.

28. LSU is going to be a problem for St. Bonaventure in the first round of the East Region, then No. 1 seed Michigan in the second round.

29. Some things just are the way they are, like Syracuse waking up in February and finding its way to an 11-seed.

30. Under-the-radar bucket list item: Spending the first two days of the NCAA Tournament in Las Vegas. I’d like to get that going while I’m still reasonably young.

31. The University of Utah had two players enter the NCAA Transfer Portal on Monday. Based on the events of the past couple of days, there will probably be more than those two.

32. That Utah-USC double-overtime game in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals was awesome.

33. This college basketball season has been weird, frustrating, and not easy for a lot of reasons. Part of me is happy it’s ending.

34. There was one year, maybe ’92 or ’93, where there was a snowstorm on the first day of the NCAA Tournament, so school was canceled. That was a good day.

35. Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery are the CBS A-team for college hoops, but I really enjoy Ian Eagle and Jim Spanarkel for a big game.

36. As of Wednesday morning, the NCAA is reporting that there have been seven positive COVID-19 tests out of 6,900 conducted. Honestly, not bad.

37. Virginia doesn’t arrive in Indy until Friday, which is going to be a fascinating situation as the Cavaliers don’t exit quarantine in Charlottesville until Thursday. They will face Ohio on Saturday with little or no practice time.

38. St. Patrick’s Day might be the biggest amateur hour bar day/night of them all. Worse than Halloween, Thanksgiving Eve and New Year’s Eve.

39. Mixing St. Patty’s Day with the NCAA Tournament only makes the situation worse. Just stay home. There’s beer and, presumably, less stupidity in your living room.

40. I have a so-so, on-the-fence relationship with Irish beer. Guinness? Nah, too dark, very much an acquired taste. Smithwick’s? Yeah, I’ll do Smithwick’s.

41. The Final Four remains the one thing, at least domestically, that I haven’t covered that I would still like to get to. I say this knowing what a circus March Madness is from a media standpoint.

42. A potential Illinois vs. Loyola-Chicago matchup in the Midwest round of 32 feels like something significant, not just another game.

43. I don’t think it’s a total given Porter Moser leaves Loyola-Chicago this spring, but he should, because he has maxed out that position.

44. Food for thought: Moser turned down eight years and roughly $18 million from St. John’s a couple of years ago.

45. The only team from the state of Kentucky in the field of 68 is Morehead State. Think about what that means.

46. If you start your tournament 1-0 on your bracket, you feel like Hercules. If you start 0-1, you think the world is ending.

47. Very much looking forward to my first mountain time zone NCAA Tournament, which I was robbed of last year. Sports-viewing in this part of the country is terrific.

48. If you’re looking for someone outside of a top-4 seed to make a deep run, consider Oregon, which is a 7. The Ducks are healthy, have won 11 of 13, and while a 7-seed may be warranted based on the full body of work, it still feels low.

49. Geo Baker will leave Rutgers as a legend.

50. Anybody know what channel truTV is?

51. An NCAA Tournament in one city, full of medical and testing protocols. Let’s try and never do this again.

52. That said, Indianapolis is the perfect, maybe only American city capable of hosting this thing on pretty short notice.

53. I watched Oklahoma State freshman sensation Cade Cunningham, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick, live as a high school junior in 2019. You could tell then that he was playing a different game than everyone else. A special, special talent.

54. I wonder if Mark Pope can keep things going at BYU at this level for an extended period of time.

55. I think Pope assistant and former Utah star Chris Burgess is going to make a fine head coach one day.

56. It’ll go by the wayside because they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, but Utah Valley, Weber State and Southern Utah all had nice seasons.

57. No, really, what channel is truTV? I have one reason to flip to it, and it’s NCAA Tournament games.

58. What’s weirder, Michigan State being labeled as a potential Cinderella, or its logo being plastered all over Purdue’s scoreboard this week?

59. You don’t have to have your bracket done until Friday at 10:14 a.m. Take a breath.

60. No, really. You’re not cramming for your chemistry midterm. Relax.

61. I’m not sure I have sufficient comfortable space to set up 3-4 screens on Friday. I’ll have to figure that out.

62. I would appreciate it if we can get Friday morning’s 8 a.m. Utah football availability finished quickly so I can file my story in a timely fashion. Yeah, I know who’s reading this.

63. Syracuse and San Diego State should find a way to play their first-round game on an aircraft carrier, just for old times’ sake.

64. The WAC may soon have a rebirth in men’s basketball once it expands, with high-profile guys like Bryce Drew leading the charge. Drew getting Grand Canyon to the NCAA Tournament is good for conference business.

65. I print my bracket out, while circling and x’ing out wins and losses as necessary. Old habit, what can I say?

66. #SheetOfIntegrity

67. Gonzaga, Florida State, Illinois, Baylor

68. I think Gonzaga wins the national title, finishing as the first undefeated team since 1976, and I’m not sure it even gets a run until the Final Four. That is how soft I think the West Region is.

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