Loose the (under)dogs of March

It's a mad, mad world, with the Sweet 16 now populated by two teams I projected, in all my brilliance, to lose in the first round, the first 15 seed ever to make it that far, a play-in game winner and a team led by a coach who once bought me a beer.

On this Monday morning, I survey a bracket that is a jumbled mess of crossed-out teams in purple ink, but the only sadness I feel is that I must wait until Thursday to resume my non-stop hoops viewing.

No, that's not entirely true. There's a little melancholy that the single best weekend of the sports season is over, that there will be no more watching of one game while squinting at the scores of three others, that whatever happens from here on out, nothing will have the original shockwave reverberations of that Florida Gulf Coast/Georgetown score; nor the unmitigated joy of FGCU's Sherwood Brown, launching himself into an adoring, pom-pom waving throng of cheerleaders; nor the abject misery on the faces and in the body language of the Iowa State players who looked and reacted as though Aaron Craft's 3-pointer with 0.5 seconds left had landed in their solar plexus; nor that punch to the gut we all took with Davidson when its sure-thing upset against Marquette slipped out of bounds.

That's not to say there will be no emotion as March Madness rolls on to the Sweet 16 and beyond. We just won't be seeing any of it for the first time, ever again.

So I apologize to my husband, who has grown tired of the incessant buzzing of the media timeout horn, and to my stepdaughter, who hasn't gotten near the big TV in going on two weeks (there were conference championships to be decided, too, you know). But this is magic in the making, the memories you'll never forget, the stuff tear-jerking ESPN documentaries are made of 30 years later. And if you miss it, live and in sweat-drenched real time, there's no highlight reel, no One Shining Moment montage, that can make up for it.

Some of the most memorable moments so far:

It's 75 degrees right now in Fort Myers, Fla., but Florida Gulf Coast is showing no inclination to go home. The 15th-seeded Eagles, an automatic entry by virtue of their Atlantic Sun conference championship, have made themselves right at home in Philadelphia, shocking two seed Georgetown in the first round before knocking off seventh-seeded San Diego State. Next up is Florida, a team Eagles coach Andy Enfield said his club tried to scrimmage earlier this season. (Bet he'll have no luck scheduling Billy Donovan's boys next year, either.)

Nowhere for the Gators to run now. Conventional wisdom says Florida ain't scared, but conventional wisdom burned its bracket on Thursday.

Here's a fun little nugget from SI's Extra Mustard: "Ten Things You Might Not Know About Florida Gulf Coast University." That's a safe bet, as I doubt anyone knew one thing about FGCU on March 21. (Let's just say that Enfield's life doesn't suck.)

Play-in game winner La Salle also crashed the Sweet 16 party with a win against Ole Miss, a 12-seed in its own right led by a wild-eyed gunner who never saw a shot he wouldn't take - twice. The Explorers, an at-large bid out of the Atlantic 10, keep staking out new territory as the craziness continues.

At this point, I'm rooting for total anarchy. Florida Gulf Coast versus Wichita State for all the marbles! But the sad reality is that, with the exception of Gonzaga, all No. 1 seeds are alive and well and marching steadily toward Atlanta like Sherman, cheering lustily for each win by a double-digit seed.

For all the excitement generated and hope created for little guys everywhere, the paths for some remaining big dogs - No. 3 Florida, which will face Florida Gulf Coast; top tournament seed Louisville, which will take on a 12th-seeded Oregon team that any other year would be a Cinderella; and an Ohio State (2)/Arizona (4) winner set to face the winner of Wichita State/La Salle in the Elite Eight - just keep getting smoother. While I'd like to see FGCU in the ATL, odds are that the clock is going to strike midnight in about five days. 

Of course, odds haven't had much to do with this tournament so far.

In the games Sunday involving schools people may have actually seen play before, I picked North Carolina to beat Kansas, so of course the Jayhawks rolled in the second half - thanks to a sudden rule change, applying only to the Tar Heels, that forbade shots from inside 30 feet.

In the portion of my bracket that approaches normalcy, Ohio State and Iowa State started things off with a bang for the Bucks. Craft has undeniably big ... aspirations, and that game-winning 3-pointer was cold-blooded, but you know he's not giving that up. Get out on him.

No. 2 seed Miami advanced (to face third seed Marquette) like a good Final Four pick, giving the state of Florida three Sweet 16 teams for the first time, and No. 2 Duke played the role of a proper favorite to beat seven seed Creighton and book the 16th and final spot against No. 3 Michigan State. (The Blue Devils also became the fourth college program to win 2,000 games in the process, joining Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina.)

So what do Louisville/Oregon, Duke/Michigan State, Wichita State/La Salle (!); Arizona/OSU, Kansas/Michigan, Florida/FGCU, Indiana/Syracuse and Marquette/Miami have in store? Only one way to find out. 

Oh, and that beer was purchased for me (after deadline) at a post-game gathering by Gregg Marshall, then in the midst of taking Winthrop University to seven NCAA tournaments in nine years and winning four Big South Conference coach of the year honors. The last came in 2007, the year the Eagles beat Notre Dame in the first round of the Big Dance. 

I don't think it's spilling any state secrets to say that not everyone liked Marshall, either because of how much he won or because of how he did it. His style can be a little manic, even abrasive, but one thing is for sure: the man can coach.

The same can be said of 15 other men whose eyes are now fixed on the same prize. Whether denizens such as Rick Pitino, Mike Krzyzewski or Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, or relative upstarts such as Enfield and Marshall, this is what all coaches envision at the start of practice in October. They may not have had their players cut down nets to make the dream of a championship seem real, as Jim Valvano did, but they've all visualized - and in several cases, experienced - standing on the top rung of a ladder and atop the college basketball world. 

I'm only too happy to watch as they try to do it again, or for the first time. Whether my bracket - with three Final Four teams still breathing - is still viable on April 8 is an amusing sidenote that is (thankfully) beside the point.