By Jeff Nations
Since I so nailed it with my last column on college basketball (Virginia? Norfolk State? Yeah, I meant NIT-bound, of course) maybe I should spare you the traditional NCAA tournament picks.
Any tournament that features Western Kentucky -- and not Kentucky -- is all right in my book, although Louisville as the No. 1 overall seed is a bit much to take. My Hilltoppers are looking like a short-term visitor to the Big Dance with a matchup against No. 1 seed Kansas on Friday night, but then again, the Hilltoppers haven't exactly done too badly for themselves in the NCAA tournament over the years.
So that's what I'll be watching -- what about you? Is your alma mater queuing up for a moment of glory? Favorite team or player? Rooting against a team instead of for one? Dreaming of that bracket pool, perhaps? That's the beauty of this particular championship -- it offers so many possibilities for even the casual fan.
There are a few angles worth exploring on the local level, even without Winchester native Erick Green's Virginia Tech squad, or even the aforementioned Cavaliers, in this year's field. Here's some teams worth rooting for, even at the expense of your bracket:
James Madison: The Dukes actually get started early, with a first-round matchup against fellow No. 16 seed LIU Brooklyn today in hopes of advancing to a second-round game against No. 1 seed Indiana.
You can't say JMU didn't earn its spot in the NCAA tournament.
The Dukes put together a three-day span of excellence to run through the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, winning back-to-back-to-back games to score the program's first invite to the Big Dance since -- unbelievably -- 1994.
Unbelievable that it's been that long, slightly more believable that this was the squad to finally break the streak. JMU did enter the tournament as the No. 3 seed, meaning the Dukes looked to have a decent shot but were by no means the favorite to advance.
So when James Madison opened tournament play with a 72-67 victory over No. 6 seed William and Mary on Saturday, it was certainly a nice moment if not an unexpected one.
The upsets began the following day in Richmond, when the Dukes had to take on second-seeded Delaware in the semifinals. It was JMU's first appearance in the CAA semifinals since 2001, yet another distant memory, and you had to wonder how they'd react. Down six at 57-51 with less than three minutes to go, it wasn't looking too promising for the Dukes.
Then, as he's done so many times this season, JMU standout freshman guard Andre Nation -- you gotta love a name like that -- sparked the Dukes by answering with a 3-pointer, then delivered one of his signature swats on the Blue Hens' ensuing possession. Nation has been a superb addition to JMU's three-guard backcourt, but it's seniors Devon Moore and A.J. Davis who have really fueled the Dukes this season. That was the case in the waning seconds against Delaware, as Moore and Davis came through in crunch time to set Harrisonburg abuzz, for the first time in a long time, in March. With leading scorer and rebounder Rayshawn Goins suspended for the first half after his weekend arrest on charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing justice, the Dukes will need something extra from elsewhere to stick around for another round.
Liberty-N.C. A&T: This game actually had a double dose of local flavor. The Flames are among the most unlikely of NCAA squads, having won the Big South Tournament by reeling off four wins in six days. Liberty hadn't won more than three straight all season before the tournament, but picked the ideal time to peak. Consider this, the Flames lost their first eight games to start the season and had two players quit in the middle of the year.
North Carolina A&T took a similar path to the NCAA field, winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) as the No. 6 seed. The Aggies hadn't won more than two games in a row before winning four straight in the tournament. Former Massanutten Military Academy postgraduate standout Adrian Powell, the Aggies' leading scorer, won MVP honors for his performance in the MEAC tournament. Powell had an off game against the Flames, but the Aggies came through with their first-ever NCAA tournament win with a 73-72 victory over the Flames. Next up? How about Louisville, the top overall seed in the tournament.
VCU: Holding a No. 5 seed, the Rams are the standard bearers for the state this year. VCU, sporting a 26-8 record, will have to shake off losing to Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10 tournament championship game, but VCU has shown flashes of absolute dominance including a 13-game winning streak midway through the season. It was just two years ago that the Rams, then a No. 11 seed, shocked top-seeded Kansas to reach the Final Four. That sort of magic can never be expected, but the road is technically a bit less rocky for the Rams to make another run deep into the tournament.
Coach Shaka Smart has worked wonders with a relatively youthful roster, which features only three seniors. Facing No. 12 seed Akron in Thursday's second-round matchup, the Rams have a tough but reasonable opener. Win that, and they'll get the winner of No. 4 Michigan-No. 13 South Dakota State. Again, no cakewalk but nothing cringe-inspiring, either. From there, who knows? VCU might still have a bit of magic left, after all.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>