March gladness NCAA tournament: Emotion-laden event delivers what sporting world often lacks.


LIKE LEMONY DAFFODILS greeting the icy ides of March, the annual national collegiate basketball playoffs known as "March madness" are a welcome respite from the increasingly bleak and frigid landscape of big-time athletics.

Just when you've had enough of Latrell Sprewell, the fire sale in Florida of baseball's world champions and the latest lawsuit against Mike Tyson, along comes, for many sports fans, the most enjoyable weekends of TV viewing all year. There are reasons aplenty why the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament has become one of the most watched -- and wagered upon -- sports events in America. It is fast-paced; a 64-team field whittled down to a "final four" fairly quickly. It is full of emotion and fan allegiances that are uncontrived. It is interactive, with so much water-cooler wagering.

Perhaps best of all, you can count on an inspirational underdog or two toppling a Goliath, as when Coppin State's team thrilled Baltimore and the basketball world with one, and nearly two, improbable victories last March.

Starting this afternoon, area fans will be rooting for Navy to achieve a monumental upset in Hartford, Conn., by beating top-seeded University of North Carolina, which is to college basketball what the Louvre is to art. The local entry with the more likely chance of advancing is the University of Maryland. It opens today in Sacramento, Calif., vs. Utah State as the fourth-seeded team in the West, which apparently means west of Adelphi.

Maryland, by the way, is setting a school record with its fifth straight appearance in the coveted playoff under Gary Williams. In Annapolis, where many powerful Terrapin alumni reign, Mr. Williams' coaching prowess may be the only subject that elicits a consensus more easily than a tax cut at election time.

While no local Division I college is in the women's tournament, xTC Johns Hopkins is in the playoffs for smaller schools. So fans, break out your bracket sheets, your snack foods and celebrate the planting season on your couches. It's time to sow potatoes.

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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