And the choices have never been clearer.
At least one charming underdog and one insufferable overdog remain in every regional. We know which way America goes in these instances -- hard in support of the Cinderella story. Nobody went to the movie theater rooting for South Bend Central over Hickory.
So here are your late-March marching orders, college basketball fans:
Your new favorite team: Saint Mary's
Secondary rooting interest: Purdue, overcoming a disastrous injury and still vying for its first Final Four in 30 years
Third choice: Baylor, exhuming its program after scandal and aiming for its first Final Four in 60 years
Regional villain: Duke, winner of three national titles and participant in 14 Final Fours
|Saint Mary's is one of three double-digit seeds still alive.|
And that doesn't even include Northern Iowa.
There's been a lot to digest on a campus of 3,500 students. On Thursday, the Gaels won their first NCAA tournament game in 51 years. Then, on Saturday they won another, and suddenly they're in the Sweet 16 and finally out of the shadow of West Coast Conference bully Gonzaga.
Now the world knows where Saint Mary's is (Bay Area, east of San Francisco). The world has been alerted to the Australian-accented team coached by Randy Bennett as well as the XXL T-shirts and XXL personality of center Omar Samhan.
"God," Samhan declared, "is a Gael."
If that's true, God has a lot of company at present. There are plenty of honorary Gaels now, eager to see Saint Mary's match itself against three teams from power conferences in Houston.
But there probably are some honorary Boilermakers, too, now that Purdue has showed its fortitude and resilience after losing arguably its best player, Robbie Hummel, to a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 24. Purdue fans had invested to the hilt emotionally in this team and saw it rise as high as No. 4 in the rankings before Hummel went down.
Dreams of playing in a Final Four just more than an hour down the road from West Lafayette, Ind., seemed shattered. Now they're still alive after tight victories over Siena and Texas A&M. Who, other than God and the Gaels, can't get behind that?
Baylor fans, that's who. The Bears have been rebuilt from probably the darkest scandal ever to stain college basketball -- when Carlton Dotson murdered teammate Patrick Dennehy in 2003, and then-coach Dave Bliss concocted a story that slandered Dennehy in hopes that it would clear the coaches of NCAA violations.
It was, quite frankly, disgusting. The new Baylor is not, even if Scott Drew's recruiting tactics have made him a lightning rod for criticism from his coaching peers.
Yet if Drew is disliked, Duke is just plain loathed in many parts of the country. The Blue Devils do many things the right way, most notably in terms of balancing winning like crazy with academic achievement.
But for a sizable section of Hoopsworld, the Blue Devils win too much, are on TV too much, are celebrated by the media too much, get too many calls, got too little NCAA backlash for Corey Maggette, are overrated by the NCAA selection committee too often and are just a little too pleased with themselves.
In other words, Duke thinks it is perfect. And in this instance, it is: the perfect team to root against in the South.
Your new favorite team: Cornell
Secondary rooting interest: Washington, a No. 11 seed shooting for its first Final Four since 1951
Third choice: West Virginia, aiming for its first Final Four since 1959
Regional villain: Kentucky, winner of seven national titles and participant in 14 Final Fours
|America loves an underdog. An Ivy League school|
going up against perhaps the bluest of blue bloods?
Yep, that would qualify.
Really, how long as it been since a Sweet 16 game carried such stark contrast as Cornell-Kentucky?
Kentucky is basketball gigantism. Cornell is the Ivy League.
Kentucky recruits superstars. Cornell does, too -- academic superstars.
Kentucky has up to four freshmen who may go pro as soon as their season is over -- and some of them might have kissed off classes a long time ago, because second-semester grades don't impact in-season eligibility. Cornell has eight seniors with big-boy majors.
Kentucky's John Wall is a wizard with the basketball. Cornell's Eitan Chemerinski is a wizard with a Rubik's Cube.
Kentucky gave its coach an eight-year contract worth nearly $32 million. Cornell gives its coach a reported $200,000 per year.
Kentucky's coach has his face on a limited-edition bottle of bourbon and his name on a limited-edition Ford Mustang. Cornell's coach is lucky to have his name on a parking space on campus.
Kentucky's coach has two vacated Final Fours on the books. Cornell's coach didn't have any NCAA tourney victories to vacate until this month -- and nobody is expecting an investigation in Ithaca any time soon.
Kentucky has a multimillion-dollar practice facility just for basketball, the Joe Craft Center. Cornell guard Jon Jaques tweeted in February that the Big Red had to practice at Ithaca High School one night after the Harlem Globetrotters kicked them out of their modest gym.
Kentucky's average home attendance this season: 24,110. Cornell's: 3,658.
And in the oddest contrast imaginable between them: Kentucky started Mark Coury 29 times under Billy Gillispie in 2007-08. Cornell has started the UK transfer once.
Now, there are many likable things about these Wildcats. Their coach spearheaded an effort to raise more than $1 million in relief funds for earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Many of the players have engaging personalities, and there are numerous stories in the commonwealth about how they've reached out to young fans, being generous with their time and gracious when encountered in public. They are fun to watch playing the game. And although they might not have the academic chops of the Cornell kids, some of them play genius-level basketball.
All those things are well and good and worth applauding. But America's team in the East Regional is Cornell, with Washington as the backup. If the regional final matchup is between John Calipari and Bob Huggins, well, at least the Mountaineers will be playing for their first Final Four since Jerry West was a kid.
Your new favorite team: Northern Iowa
Secondary rooting interest: Tennessee, aiming for its first Final Four after kicking star player Tyler Smith off the team in January
Third choice: Michigan State, which has won two national titles and played in seven Final Fours
Regional villain: Ohio State, which has won one national title and been to 10 Final Fours and has superstar Evan Turner after having superstars Greg Oden and Mike Conley three years ago
The plucky Panthers from the Missouri Valley Conference are in with three Enormous State Universities, all of which spend money and build facilities in profligate fashion. The difference in athletic budgets is roughly the difference between a middle-class neighborhood and a gated community.
Last year UNI dropped baseball to help make athletic ends meet, after dropping men's swimming and men's tennis earlier in the decade. Michigan State's budget is more than $75 million. Tennessee crossed the $100 million threshold for the first time this year. Ohio State was the original $100 million athletic empire.
None of the Enormous State Universities would have had even a passing recruiting interest in Northern Iowa shooting guard Ali Farokhmanesh, the face of the tournament to date after shooting down No. 8 UNLV and No. 1 Kansas in successive games. None of them would even think of paying a coach as successful as Ben Jacobson a salary of $150,000 -- in fact, that might be what Ohio State spends annually on chewing gum for coach Thad Matta.
Now the question is whether any of the Enormous State Universities can beat UNI.
Your new favorite team: Butler, aiming for its first Final Four in its hometown
Secondary rooting interest: Xavier, also from outside the "big six" conferences and aiming for its first Final Four
Third choice: Kansas State, trying to make its first Final Four since 1964
Regional villain: Syracuse, gunning for its second national title and fifth Final Four
|Butler's mascot chews on a gigantic bone while walking|
around the set of Hoosiers, aka the home of the Bulldogs.
How can you root against that?
Xavier's insistence on not being called a mid-major is fine -- in fact, it's admirable on one level. But it also means the X cannot wear the underdog's cape as comfortably as Butler. So embrace the Bulldogs, folks.
They come from the Horizon League and play in the most quaintly excellent gym in America, Hinkle Fieldhouse. At home games, their live mascot carries a humongous bone in his mouth through the stands, and fans can pet him as he waddles past. Their coach looks as if he's 17 years old.
The Bulldogs' best players almost invariably are homegrown Hoosiers, many of them unrecruited by in-state powers Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame (although that is changing as the program builds). They adhere to the timeless tenants of the game -- share the ball, take care of the ball, guard as though your scholarship check depends on it.
And 10 years ago, they were beaten on a last-second basket in the NCAA tourney by Florida on its way to a Final Four in Indy. A lot of players on that Butler team believed they should have been there. Maybe this year they will be.
The Musketeers are attempting to become the first Final Four team from the Atlantic 10 since Massachusetts in 1996. They have a rookie coach who looks as though he's 22 years old. They're fun to watch.
Kansas State at long last has a chance to emerge from Kansas' shadow and already has made its deepest run since 1988. The Wildcats have a coach whose head appears ready to explode at least six times per game.
And then there is Syracuse, which put 35,000 fans in the Carrier Dome for a game this season. Who can root for a team that does that? Its coach last smiled during a game in 1978, but the video evidence of that has been destroyed.
Bottom line: It is your duty as an underdog-loving American to root for Butler. And Northern Iowa. And Cornell. And Saint Mary's. Unless, of course, you have money riding on it.
Credits: This article was written by Pat Forde of ESPN.com.