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Beauty of NCAA tournament is all in the sights and sounds at every site


It's nice that every NCAA tournament team is given a clean slate, by which I mean the ad-free courts, which provide temporary relief from the eye-ache of the conference tournaments, whose floors were covered in stickers like steamer trunks from the Golden Age of Travel, or possibly the Golden Age of Traveling (a violation abetted by the stickers themselves, which are slippery as new ice).

Those tarted-up tournament floors of last week, with their midcourt logos inspired (in size and color scheme) by hospital-roof helipads, were further enlivened by rotational signboards, web addresses on the tops of backboards, anniversary logos at the hash marks, Twitter hashtags in front of benches, shot-clock graphics superimposed on the low blocks, arena names on either baseline and a tattoo-parlor's worth of other inscriptions, many of which are now common in college basketball, as college gyms have become like Russian nesting dolls: "We welcome you to Johnson Court in Wilson Arena in the Andrew A. Anderson Athletic Complex on the Peter (Humpy) Peterson Campus of Poindexter University ..."

When all of this is literally underscored by the score graphic, not to mention the game clock, not to mention the ticker forever passing by like time itself, it can be hard to concentrate on the reason we've all tuned into this basketball game in the first place: Namely, the cheerleaders, the bands, the mascots and -- lest we forget what this game is all about -- the coaches.

It's impolite not to notice the coaches, when many of those coaches are trying so hard to get noticed, in their school-color blazers of blood red or canary yellow. Between a coach who shops at Brooks Brothers and a coach who shops at Ringling Brothers, I always pull for the latter. It's just good manners.

Likewise, the student who has painted his face, removed his shirt, shaved his head or worn a rainbow clown wig -- and especially the student who has done all these things simultaneously, while playing "Seven Nation Army" on a tuba to which he has taped Justin Bieber's mug shot as a distraction to opposing foul shooters -- deserves the small courtesy of your fleeting attention.

But the NCAA tournament is more than bands and clothes and coaches, of course, no matter how much we adore Bob Huggins' tracksuit, which annually advances to my Vinyl Four of all-time favorite tracksuits.

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No, I also admire the mascots: Imagine stepping into a stifling yellow-jacket costume and answering to "Buzz" and pacing the sideline in a blaze of color while whipping the crowd into a delirium and you have some sense of what it's like to be Marquette coach Buzz Williams. (And also Buzz the Yellow Jacket from Georgia Tech, but it didn't make the tournament.)

Of course, the tournament is more than these things. It's more than the familiar spring rites of worrying over your brackets, which is to say your tournament bracket and your tax bracket. Owing to a postal error, I had H&R Block do my tournament brackets last year, and bracketologist Joe Lunardi do my taxes, with surprisingly satisfactory results.

When it comes to brackets, nobody knows anything, and the only keys that matter in March are the pronunciation keys, those annual reminders that Weber State is WEE-ber State, not WEB-er State, that Gonzaga prefers Gon-ZAG-uh, not Gon-ZAH-gah, and that Ian Eagle is EYE-in Eagle, not EE-in Eagle, or even -- in moments of exceptional confusion -- EE-in EYE-GLE.

Yes, the NCAA members are stuffing cash into their pants like contestants in one of those Lucite money machines, where you get to keep all the windblown bills you can trouser in 60 seconds, and there is a rich irony that all those blank courts in the NCAA tournament are the most lucrative courts of all.

But I'm really not bothered while the games themselves are going on, because those courts are not causing the same vertigo that last week's Big East court in Madison Square Garden did. (A week later, I still have unexplained and uncontrollable cravings for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.)

Mostly I'm not bothered because the basketball will trump everything. In anticipation of the usual buzzer-beatings and bracket-bustings, I've placed both my bracketologist and cardiologist on speed-dial this week, in the event that my alma mater -- Marquette -- has the ball in the closing seconds of a game that's deadlocked. Or dreadlocked, as will likely be the case with Marquette forward Jae Crowder.

Those featureless courts allow the eyes to focus on the game itself. There is almost never a sense of place in the NCAA tournament, few signposts indicating where the games are being contested. This seems almost deliberate, as if the TV viewer is a bloodhound the NCAA is trying to shake, so that a southern city like Nashville hosts East and Midwest sub-regionals for the right to advance to Boston and St. Louis, respectively.

Yes, those generic courts confuse things even more, but so what? No one cares where they're playing these games, only that they're being played. Don't care if it's Chinatown or on Riverside. I'm in a Murray State of mind.