March Madness began its annual three-week visit to our collective sports psyche last weekend. With its four regions, 16-team brackets and 64 “delusions of grandeur” came the usual wild blend of upsets, lopsided victories and crazy finishes.

Once the dust settled, 16 teams were left standing. A healthy balance of Davids and Goliaths advanced, giving this year’s tournament the expected mix of guests ? some were invited and some are “bracket-busters.”

There are familiar faces on the sidelines ? coaches Lute Olson, Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, Tubby Smith, Gary Williams and Jim Calhoun ? and recognizable stars on the floor ? All-Americans Drew Gooden of Kansas, Jason Williams of Duke and Juan Dixon of Maryland.

All hope to live up to their top-dog seeding and capture a championship.

Perennial powerhouses such as Indiana, Illinois and Oklahoma made it past the first two rounds as expected. Newcomers like Oregon, Pittsburgh and Texas fought off upset scares to reach the regional semifinals.

All have legitimate long-shot dreams of wearing the crown.

And no NCAA Tournament is complete without every basketball fan’s favorite ? Cinderella. This year is no different, with Kent State and Southern Illinois being measured for glass Nikes. This could be their moment.

And that’s what the NCAA tournament is about ? what team or player owns the moment.

Kent State is one of the hottest teams still alive, winner of its last 20 games. Led by unheralded star guard Trevor Huffman, the No. 10 seed Golden Flashes upset Oklahoma State in the opening round before blowing out second-seeded Alabama in round two.

The Southern Illinois Salukis shocked the college basketball world as well, beating two quality teams on their way to the Sweet 16. A No. 11 seed, the Salukis proved they belong in the tournament and that their 25-win regular season, which included a victory over Indiana, was no fluke.

Teams like Kent State and Southern Illinois advancing in the Tournament is no mistake. It has already been their shining moment. And it is becoming clearer that the only difference between big schools and mid majors is the money in the programs and conferences, and not the players on the floor or coaches on the sideline.

The college basketball talent pool is as diluted as ever, resulting in an extremely balanced tournament field where no seed is safe.

But mid majors aren’t the only surprise squads making noise this March. The UCLA Bruins and Missouri Tigers knocked off teams seeded seven and eight spots higher than them, respectively. But these “upsets” were not as improbable as their bracket seedings may have indicated.

Like a pair of cardiac patients who have just “coded,” these two squads have been revived in the post-season and are on the verge of recapturing a moment for themselves.

A pre-season top ten pick by many, Missouri burst out of the gate winning its first nine games and climbing as high as second in the national rankings. But the Tigers cooled off just as quickly and dropped out of the polls altogether by the beginning of February.

UCLA enjoyed a top-25 ranking for much of the year as well, but after a late season lull, many gave up on the Bruins, who finished sixth in the congested PAC-10 standings.

Thursday’s match-up between the two teams in San Jose will no doubt be a battle. Both squads are evenly matched, and have all the ingredients to continue on in the tournament. Only one will leave California dreaming of its shining moment.

Each school has a bona fide scorer that it can go to in crunch time. Forwards Jason Kapono (UCLA) and Kareem Rush (Missouri) are deadly from the outside, and dangerous when they put the ball on the floor. In addition to these individual talents, both teams boast skilled supporting casts.

For UCLA, Matt Barnes, T.J. Cummings and Billy Knight have proved they can play at both ends of the court. And late season contributions from freshmen Cedric Bozeman, Dijon Thompson and Andre Patterson give Coach Steve Lavin one of the deepest benches in the country.

Coming off a 26-point, 13-rebound showing against top seeded Cincinnati, senior center Dan Gadzuric is playing some of the best basketball of his college career.

A late-bloomer, his collegiate playing days end with the next loss. And a senior remembers that last moment on the court forever.

Missouri will counter with its own core of talented players. Clarence Gilbert is a wonderful complementary scorer to Rush. The versatile senior captain can play both guard positions as well as wing forward.

Sophomore Wesley Stokes leads the Tigers at the point, Continued from Page 30

while guard Rickey Paulding and center Arthur Johnson provide additional scoring.

Their moment could come when they head to Atlanta and wave farewell to all those who jumped off their bandwagon.

With so many different stories circling around this year’s tournament, it is sometimes difficult to separate the significant from the contrived.

The tournament is not about the Big East squeezing six debatable teams into the Big Dance, or a new format that features “home games” for top teams or Gonzaga coach Mark Few whining about his Bulldogs’ seeding. These are insignificant distractions.

Instead it is about dreamers.

There are the small schools that play all year without the press, without the boosters, without the recognition that big schools lavish in, for one shot at their moment of glory. There are the big schools with small expectations given a last-minute invite to prove their critics wrong.

And it’s about players ? both known and unknown ? who show up on our TV screens bigger than life, only to disappear just as quickly when the final buzzer sounds. The NCAA tournament is their last, and sometimes only, shot at playing on the big stage, and players and teams have no choice but to “leave it all on the floor.”

March Madness is great because we all get a chance to watch the players protect their dream from the harsh reality that there is just one champion.

Teams continue on, they don’t graduate. They just recruit and reload and get ready for next season.

The players must all face the reality that their time is short on the dance floor. But it is a time where every player gets the chance to shine for a moment.

Some moments are quiet ? just seeing a name listed in the program and maybe even getting some “PT” can be a memory for a lifetime.

For others the moment is loud and clear ? for every Shane Battier, there is a Bryce Drew. For every Richard Hamilton, a Terrell Taylor.

Some go on to careers in the NBA, and some to careers in the stock market. And some may never again have a moment like this. But all who compete in this special event share a bond that lasts forever ? even if it means they were heroes for just one moment.

Gerton can be reached at

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