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Excitement abounds as madness begins

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2000

Right now, in my bugged basketball eyes, Michigan State is America's best college team. By flattening Big Ten neighbors, the Spartans earned NCAA Tournament geographical coziness.

It begins with a little bus ride to Cleveland. After that, the Midwest Region comes to fruition at Auburn Hills, just down the Michigan road from the East Lansing campus.

Don't get home-cocky, Sparties.

Among four No. 1 seeds, MSU faces the most loaded bracket. Beginning with Iowa State, which ruled a studly Big 12 Conference. Marcus Fizer is sensational.

There's far more.

UCLA is an 11-time national champ that in 2000 becomes a late-rising darkhorse. Also in the Midwest melee are dangerous-but-erratic Kentucky, Maryland and Syracuse plus Conference USA's shock kings, the St. Louis Billikens.

Tough trip to Indianapolis.

Duke and Michigan State were obvious No. 1 seeds, but my nose did a frown wrinkle at seeing Pac-10 brothers Arizona and Stanford both cast as regional top dogs. Give us one, not the set.

All the No. 2 seeds -- Temple, St. John's, Iowa State and Cincinnati -- merited a No. 1 call ahead of a second Pac-10 school. My choice was Iowa State but I would've nodded at the Johnnies or Owls.

Cincinnati is in hoops mourning over Kenyon Martin busting a leg against St. Louis in the C-USA tournament. Until then, the Bearcats were significantly ahead of Michigan State, Duke and all the rest. Bob Higgins is livid. Cincy's coach feels he got stiffed because of an injury.

I'm no Judge Judy but I don't see any major injustice in Cincinnati being the South's second seed. Martin was the Bearcat catalyst. Ask yourself, "Is this one of the country's four best teams without Kenyon?" I don't think so.

Florida lands in the East, where Duke is boss seed. If there's no Gators opening-round snooze, they will spank Butler, whose fieldhouse (filming location for the movie Hoosiers) is more famous than the school's basketball program. It's the second round when March Madness should get mega-spicy for the Gators.

Chances are, it'll be Florida-Illinois. Lon Kruger, who coached the Gators to the Final Four in 1994, shucked Gainesville in 1997 for the Illini. His successor, Billy Donovan, has proved to be a superior recruiter to Lon, but will today's UF leader threaten so deep a plow into the NCAA Tournament? As a floor choreographer, Kruger has few peers.

Miami gets its shot in the South Region, facing upstart SEC champion Arkansas. I like the Hurricanes, who are especially good at playing away from home. Even if Nolan Richardson, who coached the Hogs to a national championship, said the weekend conquest at the Georgia Dome was "my biggest thrill ever."

If the 'Canes move on, the likely next challenge would be Ohio State, a Final Four team in St. Petersburg last year and a hot possibility for a No. 1 seed this time, until the Buckeyes got plunked by Penn State in the Big 10 playoffs.

Our country has no better sports happening. Our excitement, our wisdom and our opinions will zoom with each round. I'm revved for next weekend. Upsets will sprout. Gonzaga was last year's darling, overturning Florida to make the Elite Eight. Remember the March before, when it was Valpo?

This time, for longshot fun, my middleweight guess is Tulsa and the heavyweight stab is Samford. Stunners have been historically few in the first round, but something funky consistently occurs in the second.

"Years ago, a No. 1 seed almost assured you of making the Sweet 16, maybe even a wide-open shot at the Elite Eight," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "Now it gets you past round one, nothing more." After meeting Valpo, his Spartans get the Utah-St. Louis winner.

Two weeks ago, I was convinced no conference matched the SEC's power. There's been slippage. Florida's two-game slump and a feeble effort by a scattershooting Kentucky bunch against the Razorbacks in Atlanta.

Big Ten ... the best.

As usual, the NCAA committee did good work in stacking the 64-school bracket. But, as always, some things are perplexing. Nothing more than UNLV being chosen, having won a so-so conference on its home floor during a season minus any highly impressive wins. UNLV was chosen and Notre Dame, which beat 1999 national champ Connecticut twice, was left out.

North Carolina, with its least impressive squad in years, gets into the tournament but Virginia misses. They had the same record in a weaker-than-customary ACC. Head to head, the Cavs were 2-0 against the Heels. UVA was penalized for a puny non-league schedule. Or was it UNC's reputation?

Okay, we all must pick.

I'll go first . . .

Duke, Michigan State, St. John's, Stanford.

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