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March Madness Gets Under Way Without A Clear Favorite


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The first full day of March Madness is upon us. Half of the field of 64 men's college basketball teams have played or are currently playing today. NPR's Mike Pesca is in Lexington, Kentucky, one of the early round sites for the NCAA tournament and he joins us. Hi, Mike.


SIEGEL: And you're there for a big game tonight. Number one seed overall in the tournament, Louisville, is playing its first game. A lot of buildup for this game there in Lexington?

PESCA: Yes, and I have stepped out of the game to speak with you. I feel fairly confident I'm not going to miss a dramatic comeback, as Louisville is up by 34 points right now in the second half. They are a dominant team. And they do it with defense. They have, really, a good enough offense to keep them competitive against anyone, but against a weaker team like North Carolina A&T, they're simply dominant.

SIEGEL: But as you say, they're dominant in this game, there hasn't been a single dominant team throughout this season in men's basketball. How does that effect the tournament overall?

PESCA: That's right. It's not like last year, where the University of Kentucky was just seen as going to run over everyone in the tournament and that's exactly what they did. You know, I think the regular season in college basketball, even the conference tournaments, has taken such a backseat to March Madness.

And the NCAA has to be pleased that the format of March Madness is so compelling and everyone enjoys filling out their brackets and getting into all the hoopla, all the pageantry of the teams and the colors and the cheerleaders. But it is an odd sport in that the regular season is so discounted. And then when you look at the playoff structure, the first rounds of the playoffs are so much more important to the general fan who watches game after game than the final rounds. I mean, imagine if the Wimbledon tennis tournament were like that. It's the inverse of every sports tournament.

So I think the NCAA knows it can fall back on this wonderful format and survive seasons like this one, when maybe there's not one household name among the players in college basketball.

SIEGEL: Well, another team that played today in Lexington, where you are, is a small school, Butler, but a school that reached the championship game in both 2010 and 2011. And they had a victory today over Bucknell.

PESCA: They did. They withstood a fierce Bucknell run in the second half, I think it was a 19-2 run. And their coach, Brad Stevens, complimented their grittiness and toughness. Now, here's the question and the conundrum, when you go down that much and when you allow 19 out of 21 points, is that grittiness and toughness? You know, in a later game, Marquette barely survived, I mean they came back to beat Davidson, and I noted that the TV announcer called it a gutty, gutty win. I kind of looked at the Marquette victory as Davidson throwing the game away, literally, actually with an errant pass. But I do agree that the Butler victory - you know, they very much believe in themselves, they know they can win and they did win. They're the kind of team that captivates people 'cause they're not from this basketball factory, although they're making their school into a basketball powerhouse as of late.

SIEGEL: Well, has there been any game so far that resembles an upset, either today or is there one possibly tomorrow, say?

PESCA: Yeah, you know, there is - right now, a 5 and a 12 are tied at halftime, that's Cal and UNLV. Like I said, the Davidson team really was about to pull it off and they got a little tight at the end. So we're still waiting for that big instance where Cinderella rears its head. That's what everyone loves to see.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mike Pesca, speaking with us from Lexington, Kentucky, one site for games in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.