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From one Final Four to another; it's time to fire up the NCAA
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Fresh off his team's Final Four run in the Class 5A state tournament, Newton head coach Rick Rasmussen offers his take on the next three weeks of March Madness.

There’s a buzz around the water coolers and office cubicles of America this week as March Madness is upon us. The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament is set to start Thursday, as the first game pits 17th ranked BYU, a No. 7 seed versus unranked No. 10 seed Florida at 12:20 p.m. in Oklahoma City. For 20 days, the college basketball world will be checking scores on various modern electronic devices and watching TV as hundreds of excited players and 64 coaches take the court with dreams of making it to the Final Four and eventually cutting down the nets as the 2010 National Champions on April 5th in Indianapolis.

As a basketball traditionalist and a coach, fresh off the Georgia High School’s Associations’ AAAAA version of the Final Four myself with the Newton Rams, this time of year is priceless. It’s all about the exhilaration of watching young people pour their hearts into something that is the culmination of years of hard work in an attempt to catch a glimpse of fame, if only for a few weeks or even a day. A few of the special ones may even hit a shot or win a game that will become a part of NCAA tournament folklore and be remembered by TV viewers for a lifetime. The funny thing is that many of these young men will take it for granted while it is happening, only to remember it with tears of joy or sorrow for many years to come. What many don’t know is that the journey to get to the big dance and stay alive a while is much more important than the end result itself. All the countless hours that each player, coach, statistician, supporter, and athletic director puts in is what makes these three weeks so memorable for them and us, the fans. Only four teams will advance to the Final Four and only one special team can win it all; however, all involved will have learned valuable and lifelong lessons, such as hard work, commitment, and teamwork, along the way. This is what makes the amateur sport of college basketball so unique and heartwarming. These kids play are playing basketball for the love of the game.

Speaking of games, let’s break down some of the key matchups and favorites as the tournament begins. There are 64 teams, made up of four 16 team regions- the Midwest, the West, the East, and the South.

Midwest, St. Louis

In the Midwest region, the No. 1 seeded Kansas Jayhawks (32-2, 15-1 Big 12) are the clear favorites to advance to the Final Four. Fresh off a Big 12 Conference championship and their 2,000th school victory in men’s basketball, they are many experts’ pick to win it all, as they did in 2008. The Jayhawks have been ranked in the top-3 all season long, and come into the tournament ranked No. 1 in the country and the overall No. 1 seed of the tournament. Despite the pressure this provides, I believe they are a lock for the Final Four and have at least a 50-50 shot of winning it all.

I guarantee Kansas coach Bill Self will take those odds right now. Challengers in the Midwest may come from No. 2 seed Ohio State, winners of the Big 10 championship, or No. 4 seed Maryland, whose coach Gary Williams and Terrapins cut down the nets in Atlanta, as yours truly looked on in 2002. A possible first round upset is 10th seed Georgia Tech over 7th seed Oklahoma State. If Tech can keep the momentum going from their run to the ACC championship game, before falling to Duke in the final, its talented and athletic squad might be able to save much criticized coach Paul Hewitt’s job for another year or two. Despite a chance at winning the opening round game, I don’t see the Yellow Jackets winning more than one game; therefore, Hewitt might be out after next season regardless.

West, Salt Lake City

In the West region, the top-seeded Syracuse Orangemen (28-4, 15-3 Big East), have a great coach and a great tradition in the NCAA tournament. Jimmy Boeheim has been there and done that, including winning the 2003 National Championship in New Orleans, again as I looked on. Because of his coaching experience, you can’t count out these New Yorkers to get to the Final Four and have at least an outside chance of winning it all. The talk this week has been of the injury to Syracuse big man Arinze Onuaku’s quad muscle. If he is not healthy at least after the first round, Gonzaga or Butler could upset ’Cuse in the second round, but I doubt it. Look for Syracuse to get to the Elite Eight unscathed and win a close one over Big 12 Conference tournament champions Kansas State for a trip to the Final Four. Possible upsets in the West include 10th seed Florida, which was lucky to get in to the big dance, over No. 7 seed Brigham Young, which hasn’t won a tournament game since the 1970s, and 12th seed Texas El Paso over No. 5 seed Butler. The 13th seeded Murray State Racers (30-4) take on 4th seed Vanderbilt, but the story of courage in this matchup is Racers’ reserve guard Picasso Simmons, a walk-on junior guard from Gallatin, TN, who lost his mother Monday to a car crash, just before the team’s departure for the tournament. Despite the tragic loss, Simmons has chosen to honor his mother’s life by attending his team’s game Thursday in the opening round. That’s one gutsy kid.

East, Syracuse, NY

In the East region, the No. 1 seeded Kentucky Wildcats (32-2, 14-2 SEC) are red hot, despite narrowly defeating Mississippi State 75-74 in overtime in the SEC championship game. Despite head coach John Calipari’s unfortunately sketchy recruiting history and the sanctions, he therefore left in Memphis, Kentucky has the best freshman in the country in John Wall as a result. This future NBA star can do it all and may lead the Wildcats to the championship game this season. Past Kentucky, the East has second seed West Virginia, which many experts felt should have earned a No. 1 seed over Duke. The Mountaineers (27-6, 13-5) just won the Big East conference tournament and are riding high. The two should meet in the Elite Eight with Indy on their minds and with the game depending on how the talented freshman Wall handles himself. A possible upset in first round is 10th seed Missouri over 7th seed Clemson, which has not fared well in the NCAAs the last decade.

South, Houston

In the South region, the No. 1 seeded Duke Blue Devils, whether loved or hated, come in hot off their second ACC conference tournament championship in two years. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team (29-5, 13-3 ACC) has struggled to get past the Sweet 16 in recent years, due in part to the lack of a real big man inside and their reliance on having to make 3-point shots to win. As they say, you live and die by the three. Since the graduation of former Blue Devil star and big man Carlos Buzzer, who is now a 7-year NBA veteran power forward for the Utah Jazz, the Dukies have not lived up to the hype or seeding they’ve been given by their fans or the NCAA committee. This year could be different since they appear to have the weakest bracket of the four. Still, without a true bruiser like Boozer in the middle, it’s hard to see the ACC champs getting past two seed Villanova or three seed Baylor in the Elite Eight game. Upset specials in the South could include 11th seeded Old Dominion over 6th seeded Notre Dame in the first round and No. 12 seed Utah State over firth seed Texas A&M.

Coach Ras’

Final Four Predictions:

Midwest No. 1 Kansas over West Region No. 1 Syracuse in overtime in what should have been the championship game. On the other side of the bracket, East No. 2 West Virginia, after upsetting Kentucky, beats South No. 1 Duke for the right to take on Kansas in the finals. Kansas wins the National Championship for the second time in three years quite easily in fact over West Virginia.

Now that my predictions are done, fill yours out tonight and see how your bracket gets "busted" over the next three weeks. Enjoy the games, and as we say at NHS, "Go Rams!" 30-2, Region 2-AAAAA Champs, State Final Four.