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Monson: From the familiar to the never-been-done to the lucky, SLC's NCAA tourney field has it all

Published March 12, 2017 6:12 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Let's admit it. The state of Utah is better at doing some things than others, and we don't need to get all specific and comprehensive and political and proud and butt-hurt in either direction, but one of the things it is great at is hosting NCAA Tournament games.

That we can do, and do really well.

Apparently, better than we can actually qualify teams for the tournament, at least this year, since no school from Utah made the Big Dance in 2017.

Sucks, right?

It's OK.

On Thursday and Saturday, the tournament comes back, with Vivint Smart Home Arena hosting first- and second-round games for the third time in the building's history. All told, seven Utah venues have hosted NCAA games, including the Marriott Center, the Dee Events Center, the Smith Spectrum, and the Huntsman Center — which has hosted tournament games 15 different times, including the most famous of all Final Fours — the one in 1979 that featured Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores in the title game.

That was big. This is not as big.

But it ain't bad.

Especially since some of the teams coming to SLC are already familiar to fans around here, namely BYU league-mates Gonzaga and Saint Mary's and Utah's conference foe, the Arizona Wildcats, as well as Weber State's Big Sky opponent, North Dakota. Throw into the mix the possibility for some first-time magic, considering Northwestern and North Dakota have never before been invited, and these matchups could stir some grins, giggles and goofiness.

The first-round games include …

The No. 1-seeded Bulldogs against the No. 16 South Dakota Jackrabbits.

Don't know much about the South Dakota basketball program, but any underdog nicknamed the Jackrabbits is halfway to getting a whole lot of upset support at Vivint Arena, if they find a way to hang close to the prohibitive favorites. A No. 1 has never lost to a No. 16 in Tournament history, but if BYU can beat the Zags …

Northwestern, the eight seed, plays No. 9 Vanderbilt.

OK, this is cool. Hard to believe that Northwestern has never before gotten included through its many years of playing Big Ten basketball. Coach Chris Collins told CBS on Sunday: "Very rarely do you have a chance to be part of something that's never been done." He added: "It's time to get to work. We want to win. … There's nothing like this tournament."

Sounds like a team for which it might be easy to root.

Vanderbilt is no stranger to March Madness, this being its 15th appearance. The Commodores went 10-8 in the SEC, getting some nice wins, including three victories over Florida. They recently played Kentucky tough at Rupp Arena.

No. 2 Arizona against No. 15 North Dakota.

A different incarnation of the Wildcats beat the Utes, 66-56, early in January. But Arizona seemed to get stronger in time, finishing with a Pac-12 tournament title after defeating both UCLA and Oregon.

North Dakota beat Weber State three times, including in Saturday night's overtime heartbreaker of a conference championship game. Good stuff now, the neophytes against a big-league brand like Arizona.

No. 7 Saint Mary's against No. 10 VCU.

It might be hard for BYU fans to get behind the Gaels, considering how badly they threw down on the Cougars in the WCC tournament. But, in their minds and hearts, those fans know that wasn't Saint Mary's fault. It was … well, you-know-who's fault. The Gaels are a veteran team that plays good defense — except when it goes up against Gonzaga — and can beat teams inside and out at the other end.

VCU has a shot, though. The reason? It's this: The Rams are lucky. Twice this season, they won games that were all-but-impossible to win — back-to-back numbers against St. Bonaventure and George Washington. In both games, VCU was down with 0.4 seconds left, inbounding the ball at its own end of the floor. Against St. Bonaventure, a technical foul was called because the over-eager onrushing home crowd jumped onto the court before the game ended, resulting in technical-foul shots that tied the game, sent it into overtime, enabling the Rams to win in extra time. Trailing by one against George Washington, VCU set a pick, as the inbounder ran end-to-end along the baseline, the GW defender plowing over the screener, and being called for a foul. Two made free throws later, the Rams won, again.

That's the kind of insanity, should it erupt here, that makes what Collins said absolutely right: There's nothing like this tournament.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.






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