Bryan Armen Graham
Thursday March 19th, 2009

The ultimate knockout competition in American sports gets underway Thursday, with the first of 48 games over the next four days. As office drones throughout the country scramble to make those final revisions on their brackets, here's an alphabetical look at the people, places and things which make the next three weeks one of the nation's most vital sporting experiences.

A is for the announcers, whose enthusiasm lends to the frenetic atmosphere of March Madness, from catchphrase-friendly Bill Raftery to the impossibly exuberant Gus Johnson. Which tandem is calling your team's game?

B is for the Big East, the superconference that made history by delivering three No. 1 seeds: Connecticut, Pittsburgh and top-overall seed Louisville.

C is for Chattanooga, back in the NCAAs for the third time since 1995, when Terrell Owens dressed but didn't play in UTC's first-round loss at the hands of UConn. Uncomfortably awkward Late Night host Jimmy Fallon has adopted the Mocs as his favorite underdog, holding a week-long celebration on NBC. They'll need the good vibes: No. 16 seeds are 0-96 since the tourney expanded in 1985.

D is for the Dribble-Drive Motion offense, the vastly innovative free-flowing scheme John Calipari has installed at Memphis. No one can argue with the results: This year, the Tigers became the first team in history to nab 30 victories in four consecutive seasons.

E is for efficiency, how many points a team scores or allows per 100 possessions according to Efficiency numbers have made a Moneyball-like foray into the hoops cultural mainstream over the past decade. By removing tempo of play from the equation, these figures estimate the amount of points a team would score (or surrender) given an equal number of possessions. The most telling figure from a tourney perspective is adjusted defensive efficiency: No Final Four team in the past five years has been ranked outside the top 25.

F is for Fargo, not just the Best Picture of 1996 -- The English Patient? Really? -- but also home to North Dakota State, the first school to make the tournament in its first year of Division-I eligibility since Louisiana-Lafayette in 1972. Pacing the Bison is fill-it-up scorer Ben Woodside, who poured in 60 points in a triple-overtime loss to Stephen F. Austin on Dec. 12.

G is for Gonzaga. It's the Catholic school's best team in years -- the only group in college hoops among the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency -- and it's playing without the burden of expectations.

H is for Hansbrough and Heytvelt, the senior centers of attention in a potential Sweet 16 clash between North Carolina and the 'Zags. It's going to be the game of the tournament. And Gonzaga's going to win.

I is for injuries, which could compromise the dreams of a number of high-profile hopefuls on the way to Detroit. Will Ty Lawson's toe undermine the Heels? Can Connecticut's backcourt excel without Jerome Dyson? Will Marquette be rendered rudderless without Dominic James?

J is for Jeff Jordan, sophomore reserve for fifth-seeded Illinois and first-born son of the other Jordan.

K is for Kentucky, uninvited to the big dance and playing in the NIT for the first time since 1979. The all-time winningest program in college hoops is the most conspicuous NCAA tournament absentee since 2002, when North Carolina lost 20 games and missed the postseason completely.

L is for Louisville, the top-overall seed. Until this month, the Kentucky school was the only program with multiple national championships that hadn't ever made No. 1 in either national poll during the regular season.

M is for the Motor City, a first-time host of the Final Four. Only three teams in history have won the national championship in their home city: CCNY in 1950, UCLA in 1968 and 1972. The University of Detroit, this year's Horizon League cellar dwellers, won't get a chance to be the fourth. But if second-seeded Michigan State crashes the party, expect a partisan crowd to make the 90-minute drive from East Lansing.

N is for North Carolina, the first team with two ACC Players of the Year on the roster: Hansbrough brought home the honors in '08, with Lawson capturing this year's award. Never in the conference's 56-year history has a squad played with a past and current POY on the floor.

O is for Ohio, the state responsible for the most teams in this year's tournament: Akron, Cleveland State, Dayton, Ohio State and Xavier.

P is for Kirill Pishchalnikov, the tournament's longest single-barrelled name with Alabama State's Chief Kickingstallionsims out of the picture. (Those already suffering from Kickingstallionsims fatigue were likely relieved when the Hornets bowed to Morehead State in Tuesday's opening round.) Pishchalnikov, a brawny junior power forward, helps clean the glass for No. 11-seeded VCU.

Q is for question marks. There's not a team in the field without its share, from Lawson's hurting hallux to Duke's checkered past in recent tourneys to Memphis' and Gonzaga's heavyweight credentials.

R is for redemption. From Josh Hamilton to Mickey Rourke to Shawshank, America loves a good redemption story -- and this tourney's chock full of them. Morgan State is dancing for the first time under the resurrected Todd Bozeman, the one-time Cal boy wonder who became the youngest coach in history to advance his school to the Sweet 16 -- before earning an eight-year "show-cause" ban from the NCAA for making illegal payments to a player. There's also Cleveland State, the proto-Cinderella whose unlikely Sweet 16 run in 1986 -- its most recent appearance -- was marred by subsequent recruiting violations and the 1990 arrest of their head coach, who was busted driving away from a crack house.

S is for seniors. There's no substitute for experience, which goes a long way in March; always has. That's a great sign for veteran-heavy squads such as North Carolina and Connecticut -- as well as upset hopefuls like Gonzaga, LSU and Temple.

T is for Tigers, the most popular nickname in this year's field thanks to four schools in stripes: Clemson, LSU, Memphis and Missouri. Bulldogs (Butler, Gonzaga, Mississippi State) and Eagles (American, Boston College and Morehead State) rank a close second.

U is for Utah State. The Aggies are a trendy upset pick and why not? They take and make three-pointers in bunches and play under Stew Morrill, one of the sport's true coaches' coaches. They're also the only team in the country besides Memphis with 30 victories under its belt.

V is for the Vikings of Cleveland State and Portland State, No. 13 seeds both. Twenty teams on this line have upset a No. 4 since 1985, including San Diego and Siena in 2008.

W is for West Virginia, the best No. 6 seed in recent memory and a super-duper sleeper in the Midwest Region.

X is for Xavier, the Jesuit school from Cincy with designs on its third Elite Eight appearance in the past six tournaments.

Y is for Sam Young, Pittsburgh's leading scorer and stabilizing force at the three. Coming back for his senior season didn't exactly boost his draft stock -- but the swingman can validate his decision by leading the top-seeded Panthers to their first Final Four since 1941.

Z is for the Zips of Akron, who finally punched their tourney ticket on their third consecutive try in the MAC championship game. They're dancing for the first time since Bob Huggins coached the team in 1986 -- and face the Zags tonight at 7:35 p.m. ET.

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