Welcome to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament where perennial powerhouses Duke and Kentucky are out and annual also-rans Rutgers and Iona are in.
And that’s not all.
Two of the game’s most decorated programs, UCLA and Michigan State, were relegated to one of the tournament’s dreaded play-in games where the winner qualifies for the big dance and the loser goes home.
Four more schools – Louisville, Colorado State, St. Louis and Mississippi– are in the tournament’s waiting room, ready to step in if any of the 68 invitees can’t make the party because of …shh, not so loud… the coronavirus.
COVID-19 has wrought havoc with the college basketball season. Duke canceled the rest of its mediocre season after winning its ACC tournament opener because of it. There have been a myriad of games dropped all season because of breakouts.
The virus caused the tournament to be canceled a year ago. Now the NCAA is staging a comeback in spite of the pandemic, approaching the show with fingers crossed that it can be played out without any disruptions.
That, excuse the expression, is a longshot.
Kansas and Virginia, a couple of heavyweights, are in the field after the virus forced them out of their conference tournaments. The NCAA is hoping those two teams and everybody else can stay healthy for the next three weeks or so.
Iona qualified by winning its conference tourney, making Rick Pitino the third coach, joining Tubby Smith and Lon Krueger, to take five different schools – Boston University, Providence, Kentucky and Louisville are the others – into the big show. He arrives with a bit of a tattered reputation after some recruiting shenanigans were revealed at his last stop in Louisville.
Also in the field for the first time in a while is Georgetown, who showed up at the Big East tournament seeded eighth with a 9-12 record and then ran off four straight wins to take the title and earn the NCAA bid.
The Hoyas are coached by Patrick Ewing, hailed as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history after playing 15 brilliant seasons for the New York Knicks, who play in Madison Square Garden, home of the Big East tournament.
Now you would think the 7-foot Ewing would be a recognizable figure in the Garden, where his retired No. 33 hangs from the rafters. You would be wrong, Garden security hassled him during the Big East tournament for not displaying his credential.
Patrick Ewing needs a credential in Madison Square Garden? The next thing you know, Derek Jeter will need one at Yankee Stadium.