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Dan Bickley

NCAA Tournament experience transcends other sporting events

Duke's Zion Williamson celebrates Duke's win over Florida State after cutting a piece of a net after the NCAA college basketball championship game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, March 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

The NCAA Tournament is one of the best events in American sports. It’s proof that everyone adores watching amateurs compete in high-stakes competition.

Especially when the amateurs are us, and not the players.

Behold the true beauty of the NCAA Tournament, a hallmark event no longer defined by buzzer-beaters, wall-to-wall basketball and the coronation of great teams.

This is about the open-door invitation the tournament extends to everyone, and the accompanying sense of wonderment it creates among fans. It’s the most user-friendly, rewarding spectator experience since NBC put underwater cameras in Olympic swimming pools.

Nearly 50 million Americans will wager an estimated $8.5 billion on this year’s tournament, according to the American Gaming Association. More than half of that money will come from bracket pools.

Imagine how much the NCAA Tournament will be worth when legalized gambling is part of our infrastructure.

It’s also the one sporting event where ignorance is bliss. Where knowing too much is a curse. Where the office secretary is often the unexpected champion of the office pool, and the wise guys don’t have a chance. It’s an event where you have to fill out over nine quintillion bracket variations (9,223,372,036,854,775,808) just to guarantee a winner.

Mathematically, it’s the election that just can’t be rigged.

During the golden age of college basketball, this event was just part of the landscape. The sport was full of familiar teams and household names, bubbling over with dynasties and superstars. A great player like Michael Jordan would be lucky to win a NCAA title once in a three-year career. Same with Patrick Ewing. And one of the earliest super teams on record, a team that rocked the sport to its core – Michigan’s Fab Five – never cut down the nets when it mattered most.

These days, the NCAA Tournament is the only reason to watch college basketball. There’s too much turnover, transience and lack of transparency. There’s too much bowing to the tyranny of corruption and evil men. The regular season is nothing of heft or import. This year is no different and maybe worse.

These days, elite programs are in the business of hording championships, before the FBI shows up in a pre-dawn raid.

Except this tournament feels a little different. And it seems to have transcendent ability in Arizona.

The first reason is Zion Williamson, who is representing a school that is normally a four-letter word in college basketball. But for the first time ever, nobody wants to see Duke lose in the opening rounds, and maybe not at all. Not at the expense of watching Williamson overpower and dunk on the competition.

That includes Suns fans, who are watching the closest thing to a young Charles Barkley. Imagine drafting that guy from the ground up, acquiring the equivalent of Chuckles 2.0. As much as I’ve grown to loathe the concept, Williamson is a talent worth tanking for. You only hope the Suns didn’t receive their only No. 1 pick one year too soon.

The new excitement also extends to ASU fans, who sweated out yet another Selection Sunday, and that’s OK. Those who love the sport recognize a NCAA Tournament berth should never be given and always be cause for celebration.

ASU is the only Pac-12 school to make consecutive tournament berths in 2019. That’s real progress, and Bobby Hurley has already sold this program with less ammunition. But this time, ASU must win a game to validate their inclusion.

As for my bracket suggestions:

Don’t pick any of the No. 1 seeds to lose until the Final Four. Don’t be fooled by victory totals of teams you don’t recognize. The deeper you go in the bracket, the more elite coaching begins to matter. Don’t overvalue teams that play great defense. Everyone plays harder on defense in the NCAA Tournament.

Embrace the teams that can fill it up from all angles, with at least four players who occasionally lead their team in scoring.

Or just pencil in Duke and watch Zion dunk on people. And pray that he somehow ends up in Phoenix, completing a nine-year puzzle and providing a glimpse of what Barkley would’ve looked like as a rookie in our midst. One of ours from the start.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier