By Michael Wilbon
Friday, March 26, 2010; 5:36 PM
Only a fool would want to mess with the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Only a fool would goof around with the size, the structure, the balance or the drama of the thing.
Why would you mess with a competition, even a little bit, that produces something as breath-snatching as Butler-Syracuse and Xavier-Kansas State in one night? It's hard to imagine the tournament being any yummier than it was Thursday night and into Friday morning.
We had indeed crossed into Friday by the time Kansas State finished off Xavier in double overtime, in what might be the best game of the tournament, a game for the ages actually. Those two games, specifically, were so well played, so evenly contested and absurdly dramatic they made be root against my own picks, for the destruction of my own bracket. Who waves goodbye to something like this, as the NCAA is thinking of doing? Who says, "No, it's not good enough; I need something better!"
We should have seen K-State coming because of their guard play, which is often the secret recipe in March. The Wildcats have a couple of keepers: Denny Clemente and Jacob Pullen, and together they were just a tiny bit too much for Xavier's Jordan Crawford, a great college basketball player who's every bit as good as any NBA-bound guard who plays to more fanfare in the ACC and Big East. And we should have seen Butler coming because they'd won 20 straight entering the Big Dance, and now it's up 23 straight. And it doesn't matter what league you play in if you win 'em all. Larry Bird and Indiana State taught us that more than 30 years ago. Butler, an outstanding defensive team, forced Syracuse into crazy-quick shots, many of them threes, and 23 turnovers, many trying to throw the ball into the post. You can say the Orange sabotaged themselves, or that the Butler did it by forcing all those mistakes. Either way, Butler is one more win from going home to Indianapolis for the Final Four. Please don't use the word "upset" in describing what Butler did to Syracuse. Butler's a fine team, a team that has an even chance to take out K-State Saturday in one regional final.
The only disappointment of the night was that Cornell wasn't up to holding its own against Kentucky. The talent disparity was too overwhelming. Kentucky was too quick to the ball, too strong on the glass. Foul shooting may cost Kentucky against West Virginia Saturday, but that seems to be Big Blue's only weakness, which is pretty impressive for a team whose two most important players (John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins) are freshmen.
It's really something to behold, the tournament at its best. And this is its best. The field is deep and keeps giving us surprises, yet some of the best coaches (John Calipari, Bob Huggins) are back in the regional finals again. And the best news is there are five more days of it, resuming tonight. Everybody is vulnerable, everybody is capable. March Madness isn't a good enough name for what we're seeing this month; March Magic is.