1. Bill Raferty's voice at high noon on the first day.
2. Freshmen like Michael Beasley, Eric Gordon, Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose are dancing instead of grinding out their first NBA season.
3. Friendly wagers between state governors. In 2005 Washington's Christine Gregoire bet Montana's Brian Schweitzer a box of Fuji apples that her No. 1--seeded Washington Huskies would beat his 16th-seeded Montana Grizzlies. Gregoire won eight rib steaks.
4. Wall-to-wall basketball. The first Thursday and Friday might as well be national holidays—enough people skip work to make them one—with games starting as early as 9:30 a.m. PT and ending as late as 1 a.m. ET.
March 23, 2008
5. The most infectious fight song in all of sports, Tennessee's Rocky Top. We'll be hearing it a lot.
6. SI'S ALL-BRAINIAC TOURNEY TEAM
Drake's Adam Emmenecker, a former walk-on turned Missouri Valley Player of the Year, gets to show the nation that smart guys can also ball. Emmenecker isn't the only player whose GPA is as rarified as his team's RPI.
TEXAS, GUARD, 3.64, EDUCATION
BUTLER, FORWARD, 3.95, CHEMISTRY (MBA)
BELMONT, GUARD, 3.87, EXERCISE SCIENCE (PRE-MED)
WEST VIRGINIA, GUARD, 3.79, HISTORY
DRAKE, GUARD, 3.97, BUSINESS AND FINANCE
7. The Cheerleader Cattiness Quotient. Few things are more amusing than watching spirit squads talk smack about their rah-rah rivals—or to opposing players, a la UCLA cheerleaders versus Joakim Noah at the '06 Final Four.
8. The 5 vs. 12 game. Wyoming over Virginia in 1987. Wisconsin--Green Bay over Cal in '94. Pacific over Providence in 2004. You can almost always count on a No. 12 seed (or three) springing a first-round upset over a No. 5. In fact, in only three seasons (1988, 2000 and last year) since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 has a fifth seed not gone down in the first round. This year it'll be Western Kentucky over Drake.
9. Even your grandma is in an office pool. And she nails all the 8--9 games.
10. Tournament games are now broadcast for free, on the Internet, assuring that those fans who haven't traveled to regionals, vacationed in Vegas or simply played hooky from their jobs are still completely unproductive at work.
11. The MEAC team's band. The best performance from the low-major conference's representative often comes at halftime.
12. The "live look-in" at a game that is tied with two minutes left.
13. The voice of CBS's Gus Johnson rising three octaves and 40 decibels as he narrates that frantic finish.
14. (Temple swingman Dionte) Christmas arriving nine months early.
15. The reaction of the bench scrubs when one of their own drills a three-pointer right in front of them.
16. The BCS = autocracy. March Madness = democracy.
17. The football-obsessed state of Tennessee has six teams in the Big Dance—the Vols and Lady Vols, Memphis, Vanderbilt, Austin Peay and Belmont.
18. The St. Joe's Hawk. The hardest-working mascot in sports tirelessly flaps its wings nonstop throughout the entire game—even during halftime.
19. Coast-to-coast, game-winning dashes by BYU's Danny Ainge against Notre Dame in '81, UCLA's Tyus Edney against Missouri in '95 and UConn's Jen Rizzoti against Tennessee, also in '95.
20. Charismatic mid-major coaches making names for themselves. George Mason's Jim Larranaga (above) and his speeches—about Superman and Kryptonite, and the "Connecticut Assassin's Association"—during the 2006 Final Four run. Tom Brennan's stand-up act with Vermont in '05. Jerry Wainwright with UNC-Wilmington in '02 and Richmond in '04.
21. Billy Packer's annual foot-in-mouth syndrome. No, Billy, Greg Oden wasn't the main story line of last year's final. (Florida's title repeat was sort of noteworthy.) And Larranaga and George Mason? They might have deserved that bid after all.
22. More loose lips at postgame press conferences. Some alltime gems: "Have you ever done anything for a weekend that maybe you didn't want anybody knowing about? And [as the Eagle], you know how close you can get to the cheerleaders?"
—Tennessee's Bruce Pearl in 2005 on subbing for the school mascot when he was a student at Boston College
"I live in Connecticut. I'm a Red Sox fan. Tennessee is the Yankees, and [Pat Summitt] is George Steinbrenner."
—UConn's Geno Auriemma at the 2003 Final Four
"We want to win this championship bad so that the NCAA guys will have to stare at the trophy on coach [Jerry Tarkanian's] desk when they ask all those questions during the next investigation."
—UNLV's Larry Johnson the night before the 1990 final
23. Coaches' wives becoming nearly as famous as their husbands. Margaret McCaffery (below), the outspoken spouse of Siena coach Fran McCaffery and a former star player at Notre Dame, was ejected from one of Fran's games for her tirades against refs.
24. Players taking exams on the day between games.
25. North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell's summation of Charlotte Smith's title-clinching trey in '94: "the second-greatest miracle to take place on Easter Sunday."
26. Unlikely heroes. Lorenzo Charles, Harold Jensen, Keith Smart, Scotty Thurman.
27. Watching UCLA's Love pop threes. It never looks natural, yet the ball almost always goes in.
28. Seeing all the different court designs (like the giant orange keys in Boise). It's a fashion show for basketball courts.
29. The Stanford Band in topical dress. At the onset of the Iraq War in 2003, band members dressed up for the first round in stereotypical French attire (berets, striped shirts, Louis XIV garb) in solidarity with our recalcitrant allies.
30. Florida's Billy Donovan (left, who earns $3.5 million per year) won't be coaching in it, but Belmont's Rick Byrd ($228,000) will.
31. No. 16 seeds. Especially the Harvard women, who became the only such seed—men's teams included—to win a tournament game when they beat Stanford in 1998.
32. Open practices at the Final Four.
33. The mid-majors are getting serious respect. Drake, which hasn't been in the NCAA tournament since 1971, has the same seed (No. 5) as Michigan State, which has won two national championships since 1979.
34. SI'S ALL-BRAINIAC TEAM (WOMEN)
Liberty's Megan Frazee puts forth A+ effort on the court and in the classroom. She had a 4.0 last semester, then hit a game-winner in the Big South tournament to lift the Flames (combined GPA: 3.5 in '06--07) into the NCAAs.
LIBERTY, GUARD-FORWARD, 3.91, KINESIOLOGY
TENNESSEE, FORWARD-CENTER, 3.77, SOCIOLOGY/CRIMINAL JUSTICE
OKLAHOMA STATE, GUARD, 3.76, EDUCATION
CAL, GUARD, 3.62, UNDECLARED
GEORGEWASHINGTON, GUARD, 3.85, COMMUNICATIONS/SOCIOLOGY
35. BROTHER AGAINST BROTHER
This year's field features sibling solidarity—Stanford teammates Brook and Robin Lopez; Oklahoma's Taylor and Blake Griffin; and Mount St. Mary's Shawn and Sam Atupem Jr.—and rivalry: Stephen Rossiter (Davidson) and Ryan Rossiter (Siena); Tyler Hansbrough (UNC) and Ben Hansbrough (Miss. State); Joe Crawford (Kentucky) and Jordan Crawford (Indiana).
36. Athletic directors of doubly blessed schools shuttling between the men's and women's tournaments.
37. The trend toward playing basketball in a football megadome has yet to sweep the entire tournament: Ten of the 13 host sites—all but Detroit and Houston for the regionals and San Antonio for the Final Four—are traditional hoops arenas.
38. Even though someone other than Princeton or Penn is representing the Ivy League (that would be Cornell) for the first time in 20 years, a former Tigers coach (John Thompson III, with Georgetown) and a former Quakers coach (Fran Dunphy, with Temple) are still in the Dance.
The patron saint of mid-majors has given us John Stockton, Adam Morrison and one magical March memory after another.
40. The Drew family.
It's been 10 years since Bryce etched his name in tournament lore with his hoops version of a hook-and-ladder play and his dad, Homer, led little Valpo to the Sweet 16. Bryce's older brother, Scott, is already one of this tournament's feel-good stories simply for raising No. 11 seed Baylor from the ashes.
41. Sister acts: Oklahoma's Courtney and Ashley Paris (above). George Washington's Jessica and Jazmine Adair. The Bjorklunds (Angie at Tennessee, Jami at Gonzaga). And the Frazee triplets of Liberty: Moriah and Molly are identical; Megan's a fraternal sibling.
42. BENCH PLAYERS LOCKING ELBOWS as their diaper dandy teammate attempts a game-tying free throw.
43. Despite the impossibility of making a T-shirt that has eight team logos—plus giant tournament graphics—on the front look good, the NCAA keeps on selling them at first-round site merchandise stands. And people keep buying them.
44. Maryland--Baltimore County made the field—for the first time in school history—but neighboring Maryland (22 tournament appearances) did not.
45. That it still takes a team. In 1987, No. 8 seed Navy lost to No. 9 Michigan even though David Robinson scored 50 points.
46. The West Coast Conference has three teams in the field, only one fewer than the ACC.
47. The sons also rise. Patrick Ewing Jr. and Jeremiah Rivers (son of Doc) will suit up for second-seeded Georgetown. But the best of the NBA scions may have the least-heralded dad: Davidson sophomore Stephen Curry (above), son of Dell. A sharpshooter like his pops, Stephen leads the nation in three-pointers made.
48. Steve Fisher's being named Michigan's interim coach before the '89 tourney and leading the Wolverines to the national title.
49. Chris Webber's timeout.
50. Coach "Fang" Mitchell, and a Coppin State team that started the season 4--19 (now 16--20), reaching the Dance.
51. Sandy Koufax. The reclusive baseball Hall of Fame pitcher turns up at the Final Four almost every year.
52. Unlikely cult icons. In March 2006 the phrase "You just got Pittsnogled" officially entered the sports lexicon as Kevin Pittsnogle led West Virginia to the Sweet 16 and won over fans everywhere with his penchant for heroic threes and Kevin Federline--esque facial hair.
53. The possibility, however unlikely, that Oklahoma could play Boise State again in a postseason game of consequence.
54. The possibility, also unlikely, that Austin Peay could force Dick Vitale to again stand on his head, as he did when the Governors beat Illinois 21 years ago and Vitale lost a bet.
55. Texas Western 72, Kentucky 65.
56. The bone-rattling screen Oklahoma's Eduardo Najera set on Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves in '99.
57. The play-in game.
58. Neutral sites. Nothing says NCAA tournament quite like a Miami--St. Mary's first-round matchup in Little Rock.
59. Bird vs. Magic. Larry Legend and Magic Johnson faced off in one of the greatest finals ever.
60. Christian Laettner's turnaround jumper.
61. Darvin Ham's slam. In '96 the Texas Tech forward brought down the house—and the backboard—against North Carolina in Richmond.
62. Jimmy Valvano's jig at center court.
63. At least one player ends every game with a towel over his or her head, in tears.
64. The winners still cut down the nets.
65. One Shining Moment. Prediction: the ultimate guilty pleasure—this is the only acceptable time to cry over a Luther Vandross song—will still be in circulation at the 2083 Final Four.
OPEN SPECIAL FOLDOUT: The SI Brackets
Turn the page to see picks and analysis of every game of the tournament, from the first round to the Final Four.