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As Good As The NCAA Gets

We will never again see a more fun tournament run than Loyola's last year. Chicago sports fans, that is.

Folks in other parts of the country will get behind underdogs and revel in the magical memories made this season and in future NCAA men's basketball go-rounds, but for Chicago, last year was as good as it gets.

And the year before that, when Northwestern finally broke through, was special as well. Those tournament experiences were especially entertaining when compared to the previous five Dances, which often saw no teams qualify from Illinois. And this year's only rep, Peoria's Bradley, seems certain to make a quick exit.

Loyola's national championship in 1963 remains the greatest college basketball feat in Illinois history. The Ramblers didn't just win, they also made history with four African Americans in their lineup - the most ever at that point.

Prior to that season, major college coaches abided by an unwritten rule that no more than two African-American players would play at the same time in any given game. Loyola defeated powerhouse Cincinnati 60-58 in the final. That ended the Bearcats' run atop the NCAA at two titles.

But the Final Fours reached by DePaul in 1979, Illinois in 1989 and 2005, and the Ramblers last year were even more memorable. The 1963 team made history, but college basketball wasn't a headliner back then. The game gained in popularity steadily thereafter and then really took off in the late '70s into the '80s.

One of the few things the NCAA does right is make a big deal out of all four regional champs, with winners getting a big plaque and cutting down nets. Then they have almost a week to revel in their achievements before returning to action in the national semifinals.

Sports are so depressing at times because everybody in a given league loses every year except for the one champion. The Los Angeles Dodgers have won their division six times in a row, but who cares? They haven't won a World Series. In college basketball there is only one champ but people remember the Final Four, especially when one of them was such an underdog.

Loyola's epic run to the Final Four last year stands alone.

This year's tournament starts with a bang today. In the first game of the whole thing, starting before 11:30 a.m. local time, the weird NCAA matched up coach Richard Pitino's Minnesota team against Louisville, the school that fired his dad last year. I don't believe Pitino the Younger has vowed vengeance - for one thing, I can't imagine he has a beef with new coach Chris Mack, who came from Xavier. and for the other, the current players are virtually all ones his dad recruited.

But the fact of the match-up is still the fact.

Also early Thursday is the Yale versus Louisiana State match-up. It is always fun to see the Ivy League try to match up against a power conference team like LSU, and this year's battle is more compelling because Louisville coach Will Wade has been suspended because he apparently was caught on tape discussing the "deal" one of his recruits would receive.

One would think the weird NCAA would lower the boom on Wade, but last year Arizona coach Sean Miller was caught doing something similar and suspended as well. And yet he was reinstated and has yet to face a penalty.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the greatest fraud in American history: amateur athletics. But that is another column for another time. For today: let's have some Madness!

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Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.

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