Wednesday, 24 March 2010

March Madness - Who Do Ya Follow?

he NCAA basketball tournament – otherwise known as March Madness – is well under way, and the opening weekend has shown once again why it’s the best annual tournament in the world. With 42 hours of games – many going down to the wire – over four days in the opening two rounds, there has never been a better time to be a bum.  Much love goes to CBS and Canadian channel, The Score for their non stop coverage, and "surfing" to the best games. 

College basketball has some of the most passionate fans in all of sports. Fans line up for days – and maybe more – for a chance to get in and see their team play. It’s easy to see why too, as college basketball teams genuinely do represent the people who support them.

Fans of St Mary's Gaels watch their team win in Round 1

Unlike pro sports, where players go wherever the money is, college basketball players come from within their main supporter group – the students. They’re living on campus with them, going to classes and all the parties. It becomes easy for the other students to feel like they are part of the program, and to feel pride in their team, something that cant always be said for a pro player that you know is only playing for your team because he cant get out of his contract.

For those not current students, its also pretty easy to pick which team you’re going to follow. Be it your old alma mater, or maybe the local college that you get to see on a regular basis.

The question is though, for a foreigner like myself, who do I follow? I didn’t go to college in the US, nor have I ever lived in any town in the States to adopt a team as truly being mine. Sure, if asked I tell everyone I’m an Arizona Wildcats fan – I saw a game on TV when I was a kid and became a fan of Damon Stoudamire – but I wouldn’t say that I was any kind of die hard.

So who do I follow through the tournament? Recently I’ve been concentrating on any team with an Australian connection. Over the last few years there’s been some good Australians coming through, including Andrew Bogut, Patrick Mills and AJ Ogilvy. This season though there’s a team full of Aussies making a genuine run – the St Mary’ Gaels.

Interview with Gaels Coach Randy Bennett and star Omar Samhan

I first started watching the Gaels three years ago when Aussie young gun Patrick Mills played two seasons before being picked up by the Portland Trailblazers in the NBA. The Gaels, who have an Australian assistant coach David Patrick who I wrote about several weeks ago, seem to have realised the potential in the Australian market, and now feature five Australian players.

The Gaels have won their first two games, including knocking off a #2 seed in Villanova, on their way to the Sweet 16, and this week have a very winnable game against Baylor. While its been fun cheering on the Aussies, the start for the Gaels has been their local senior, Omar Samhan, who has been unstoppable inside, and has surprised many “experts” who had no idea he was capable of such performances.

CBS Highlights of Day 3 action, including the Gaels upset of Villanova

That’s the other aspect of the tournament that makes it so exciting – you never know which player is gonna explode onto the national stage. Watching players like Samhan and Ali Farokhmanesh of Northern Iowa who has hit some massive shots of his own, step up in the biggest games of their lives is what makes this tournament so special.

While I’ve yet to attend a college basketball game myself, I’m about to head off on my own March (and April) madness over the next few weeks, hitting Vegas, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, while catching the final of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) at Madison Square Garden. While its not the NCAA tournament, all of the above still holds true, and I’m looking forward to watching these kids play for their schools with pride.

I just love the madness!

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