65…64…32…16…8…4…1…Madness!

If you love college basketball, then these next couple of weeksis the most wonderful time of the year. Hands down, there’s nothingand I mean nothing — not the Fall Classic, Super Bowl Sunday, NBAor NHL Playoffs, Wrestlemania, (not even the Lingerie Bowl) — likethe spectacle that is MARCH MADNESS, a.k.a. the NCAATournament.

In the tone, pitch and over-exaggeration of Dick Vitale: Whereeelsee cann youu seee 64 awee-inspiringg, jaw-droppingg, madee youuwishh youu weree recordingg themm, gamess inn justt 19 dayssbabyyyy!!

From buzzer-beaters to Cinderella school upsets, darkhorses tofavorites, March Madness is what college basketball is all about.It’s what fans live and die for, right from the season’s openingtip.

After I had anticipated Selection Sunday for months, the firstword that popped into my head was “finally” when I realized thatSunday, March 14 was right around the corner. After having tosuffer through the worst season in the 97-year history of St.John’s men’s basketball, there is finally a reason to celebrate.There’s finally a reason to clap my hands together in satisfactionrather than hitting the walls when watching college basketball.While SJU players anxiously await their next coach, 64 otherprograms are raring and ready to go.

The first round starts this Thursday and Friday, and by Sundayevening, there will only be 16 teams remaining.

After the Sweet 16 concludes and eight teams’ candles are blownout, it’s on to the Elite Eight. From there, the Final Four willstand tall on the first Saturday in April in San Antonio. Two willplay their way into Monday night’s Championship game.

With that in mind, here is my analysis of the 2004 NCAATournament and all my upset-picks and Final Four picks as well asmy crowning of the National Champion. All I can say is that onceyou read this, especially if you’re a St. John’s fan (chuckle)you’ll be mad at me.

A No. 1 seed has never been upset by a 16 seed and that will notchange. My first-round upsets are as follows: (13) East TennesseeSt. over (4) Cincinnati, (12) Murray State over (5) Illinois, (11)Western Michigan over (6) Vanderbilt, and (12) Manhattan over (5)Florida. I see two number 9 seeds, UAB and Southern Illinois,winning over number 8 Washington and Alabama, respectively.

All six Big East schools will advance to the second round. Theonly team that will have a hard time is Seton Hall, who is pittedagainst Arizona, and then has the unfortunate assignment of takingon Duke, a definite loss. Syracuse will lose to Maryland in thesecond round and Boston College will fall to Georgia Tech, whileProvidence will come up just short against last year’s runner-upKansas.

That leaves us with two Big East schools: Pitt and UConn, whowill need to pack extra clothes for their trip to Sweet 16 and evenbeyond.

The four No. 1’s — Kentucky, Stanford, St. “The Real SJU”Josephs and Duke will all advance to the Sweet 16, but only twowill move on to the Final Four. I foresee Stanford losing toMaryland and SJU falling to Wake Forest. Stanford flirted withperfection, before losing to Washington and is now 29-1, whereasSJU finished the regular season untouched at 27-0. However, in thesecond round of the Atlantic-10 tournament, the Hawks were rudelyawakened by a blowout loss at the hands of Xavier, who will beatLouisville in the first round before getting romped by No. 2Mississippi State.

This year’s regions will not be called East, South, Midwest andWest but instead be labeled by the name of the host city in whichthe games will be played: East Rutherford, Atlanta, St. Louis andPhoenix. Every region is loaded with an unlimited amount of talentand possible match-ups that you won’t want to miss.

For example, if my proposed brackets play out, then Duke andNorth Carolina can meet in the Atlanta Regional. The winner of thatcontest, which happens to be the most intense rivalry in collegebasketball, would fly to San Antonio. Now that’s madness! Whatabout a possible Sweet 16 slate that would see Kentucky take onKansas, two of the most successful college programs who seem to bein the running for the title every year.

My Sweet 16 are Duke, Murray State, North Carolina, Miss. St.,SJU, Wake Forest, Pitt, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Maryland, N.C.State, UConn, Kentucky, Kansas, Ga. Tech and Gonzaga.

Duke will beat North Carolina on a Hail-Mary, catch, shootturnaround jumper that will have Christian Laetner suing forcopyrights. Pittsburgh (who will beat Oklahoma State in the Elite8) also heads to the Final Four with a win over Wake Forest.Georgia Tech will hold off those little feisty Bulldogs of Gonzagaand then prevent Kentucky from advancing to a second straight FinalFour.

Maryland will run into the nation’s best player in Emeka Okaforas UConn moves on to San Antonio.

So there you have it: two ACC schools and two Beasts of theEast. The Final Four will feature Duke vs. UConn and Georgia Techvs. Pitt.

The Blue Devils and Huskies will meet in a re-match of the 1999National Championship and this year’s result will be the same:UConn in a game for the ages. The Yellow Jackets will be stung bythe Panthers, who therefore will meet with the Huskies for thefourth time this season, and the second time in three-plusweeks.

It will be one of the best championship games ever played,reminding people what the Big East used to be and still is: thebest conference in the country.

When UConn won the title in 1999, it began its run in Phoenix,just like this year. It will be a low scoring game, something like64-60. That’s UConn 64, Pitt 60.

With the way this season has gone for St. John’s, it would onlybe fitting that the Johnnies’ most hated rival, led by Okafor andBen “Madison Square” Gordon would be the team cutting down the netsin San Antonio and winning the title.