x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Let the college basketball March Madness continue

Kyle O'Quinn, the Irishman in name only, made enough big shots to become an overnight big-shot, and America fell hard for the Norfolk Spartans.

Norfolk's Kyle O'Quinn gets in the March Madness spirit.
Norfolk's Kyle O'Quinn gets in the March Madness spirit.

Last weekend, Kyle O'Quinn was dressed in green, the colour of choice for millions across the US for the extended St Patrick's Day celebrations.

The funny thing about O'Quinn is that despite his thoroughly Irish-sounding name, he is African-American, with no direct connection to the people of the Emerald Isle.

Another funny thing. He was anonymous - outside of his family, friends and followers of the obscure Norfolk State University basketball team - until fame came knocking on Friday.

Norfolk, in their fittingly green uniforms, ambushed the heavyweights Missouri in the hoops equivalent of Senegal's victory over France in the 2002 football World Cup.

O'Quinn, the Irishman in name only, made enough big shots to become an overnight big-shot, and America fell hard for the Spartans - as it does annually for some giant-slayer during the month-long sports extravaganza known less by its official title (the NCAA Tournament) than its informal one (March Madness).

The same day, Lehigh University, another low-profile squad, doubled the delirium level by eliminating the vaunted Duke - whose coach, Mike Krzyzewski, is so esteemed that he orchestrates the US Olympic team in his spare time.

For Norfolk and Lehigh, the madness turned to badness - then sadness - on Sunday when both were beaten in their next outings.

For the rest of us, the madness resumes today, now that most of the 68 schools in the original field have had the control-alt-delete treatment leading into the upcoming round, the Sweet 16. (Alliterative word pairings - Elite Eight, Final Four - add to the charm of March Madness, also known by the less jingly Big Dance.)

Just now putting on your Big Dancing shoes? Need a Madness reboot? Either way, a peek at the peaking contenders still in the hunt follows.

On the road to redemption. On December 10, Xavier versus Cincinnati deteriorated into a street fight so horrifying that the game was called off with nine seconds remaining. Eight players were suspended and two programmes were scarred. Since, both teams have minded their Ps and Qs, while carrying out their coaches' Xs and Os to near-perfection.

In a state of bliss. For the first time in forever, a quarter of the Sweet 16 hails from one state. Besides Xavier and Cincinnati, Ohio is lit up by Ohio State and Ohio University. The Buckeye State, as it is called, has become the bull's eye state for accurate shooters.

No badgering the Badger State. That would be Wisconsin, hardly a basketball hotbed, which is nonetheless represented by Marquette and the University of Wisconsin. Though neighbours, they offer a contrast in styles. Lively Marquette play in fourth gear, grinding Wisconsin in second. Different strokes for different folks generate similar results.

Two, too, from the Tar Heel State. The University of North Carolina, with a front line tall enough to look down on a few NBA teams, were co-favourites until Kendall Marshall, their key player, broke his wrist on Sunday. North Carolina State, the last team that learned they were invited to the tournament, have shed their long-shot label with a couple of eye-popping wins.

Mentor and pupil. In the 1980s, Rick Pitino was a visionary who pioneered the three-point shot while coaching at Providence College, with help from the sharpshooting "Billy The Kid" Donovan. Pitino, now at Louisville, is a recent Hall of Fame nominee, having later hired Donovan as an assistant coach. Donovan - still Billy, but a kid no longer at 46 - coaches at Florida. Both have earned a national title. With one more win each, their teams would meet this weekend.

Big, bad Big Ten. No conference has more survivors than the Big Ten, with Ohio State, Michigan and Indiana still standing. Unlike the other two, storied Indiana have recovered from a recent basketball coma. Penalised severely for violations of NCAA rules, Indiana won 28 games in the three previous seasons. A win tomorrow would give them 28 this season.

Fashion faux pas. Avoid staring at Baylor's harsh neon yellow uniforms, or you might go blind. (Also, make sure you bring a pair of Qs and Us to play Baylor's version of Scrabble: two starters are named Quincy.) As for Syracuse, at least their unsightly orange uniforms have been closeted. As one of the No 1 seeds, per rules, they have been clothed in white. They do execute a gorgeous zone defence.

Winners from way, way back. Kansas have accumulated 2,067 victories in their glorious history, second only to Kentucky's 2,086. (North Carolina rank third.) Debates rage deep into the night on which claim to be the nation's basketball capital is more legitimate.

The Player of the Year race has been reduced to Kansas' Thomas Robinson and Kentucky's Anthony Davis.

While Kansas are formidable, Kentucky's entire line-up likely will advance to the NBA, which means that, by staying intact, they could soon beat the Charlotte Bobcats.

If talent prevails, Kentucky will wind up kissing the trophy. But this is March Madness. Anything can happen - even the previously unknown Kyle O'Quinn was king for a day, though not in Ireland.