The Sky's the Limit

Colorado could be courting a winner in the NCAA Tournament.

Todd Bertuzzi runs for mayor of Denver. Haiti nukes Fort Lauderdale. John Ashcroft and Mel Gibson get married at Caesars Palace. The Air Force Academy basketball team kicks a ton of tall civilian butt, then flies smartly on into the NCAA Tournament.

Which do you find most improbable?

The last time the Zoomies went to the Big Dance, JFK was in the White House, Magic Johnson was three years old, and Dick Vitale had a full head of hair. Yes, 1962. Since then, Air Force has enjoyed its share of great sports moments -- those thrilling football wins over big, bad Notre Dame, those bombing runs over Haiphong Harbor -- but none of them have involved a wooden floor, a round ball and a steel ring. As a member of the Western Athletic Conference, Air Force never came close to winning a league basketball title, and since joining the new Mountain West Conference, the Falcon hoopsters have been regarded by their opponents as well-behaved midgets who know a lot more than most nineteen-year-olds about astrophysics but couldn't hit an open dumpster with a spitball from three feet.

All that changed this year. The colonels in Colorado Springs must still be pinching themselves over their coffee, because Air Force not only won the Mountain West season title with a 22-5 record, it also climbed into the Top 25 for the first time in its 48-year history and slipped into the NCAA Tournament via an at-large bid even after losing in the league tournament to a mediocre Colorado State team.

Sunday was sheer agony, Air Force coach Joe Scott says. While he and the Falcons sweated their post-season fate, ten frazzled members of the NCAA Tournament selection committee were holed up in an Indianapolis hotel room, watching a bank of TV sets and studying about 200 pounds of computer printouts to determine which of the nation's "bubble" schools would join the 65-team field this year. In the end, they voted the Zoomies in as a number-eleven seed. Jay Bilas, ESPN's sharp-tongued hoops commentator, loudly protested. But Jay gets no say.

Up in Boulder, the University of Colorado basketball team was also worried Sunday. CU's 18-10 record and fourth-place finish in the tough Big 12 Conference should be good enough to make the Big Dance, the Buffs reasoned -- despite their own listless one-and-done showing at last week's league tournament, when Bobby Knight's Texas Tech Red Raiders sent the Buffs sprawling. As it happened, though, the committeemen in Indianapolis said no to the Buffs, which prompted some rather peculiar speculation that the NCAA had shunned Colorado because of its very name. CU didn't get on the dance card, this logic holds, because the powers-that-be didn't want to remind national TV audiences of the sex-and-parties scandal plaguing the CU football program.

In any event, CU will be represented at the NCAAs by its superb women's team, a 22-7 outfit that grabbed a (disappointing) number-six seed and an opening-round match-up this Saturday against California-Santa Barbara. Hard-core hoops junkies understand -- or at least try to live with -- the oddities of Bracketology, the complex rankings and pairings of the tournament. But this one's a real head-scratcher, U.S. geography be damned: CU and Santa Barbara find themselves in the sixteen-team Eastern region, as does the University of Houston.

On the other hand, the much-relieved Air Force Falcons got a surprising bonus from the selectors. Their first-round game will require nothing more, transportation-wise, than an eighty-minute bus ride north to the Pepsi Center, site of last week's debacle against CSU. Come 7:50 p.m. this Thursday, the opponent will be more formidable: North Carolina (18-10) is the traditional basketball power that's produced Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Charlie Scott and, for the historians in the house, Lennie Rosenbluth, MVP of the 1957 NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels have won three national titles (most recently in 1993), finished second four times and played in fifteen Final Fours. But North Carolina coach Roy Williams (late of Kansas) is wary of Air Force -- not least because he'll face a playing style that would drive a Buddhist monk into a homicidal rage. The so-called Princeton Offense, which Air Force's Scott learned at the elbow of its originator, Princeton wizard Pete Carril, is a model of strict discipline and small-guy restraint that relies on passing, passing and more passing, followed by a back-door layup or, failing that, a dead-on three-pointer. Air Force led the nation this year in scoring defense and ball control (10.6 turnovers per game) and held seventeen opponents to fifty points or less.

Twice a year, North Carolina gets a dose of such maddening stuff courtesy of rival North Carolina State, which plays some Princeton style, too. Still, the Tar Heels will be hard-pressed to prepare for Air Force, and if frustration gets inside their starting five -- double-digit scorers all -- the Falcons (seven-and-a-half-point underdogs) could have a shot. Were they to win Thursday, an even more intriguing possibility looms. Among the eight tournament teams coming to Denver this week, we find last year's champion, Syracuse, 21-8 Brigham Young, upstart Texas-El Paso and Big 12 powerhouse Texas (23-7), which has been installed as an eleven-point favorite over the number-fourteen seed -- none other than Princeton itself.

Basketball junkies who reallylove the college game in all its forms and permutations can but dream of one fantastic scenario. Princeton disrupts the Texas scoring machine late Thursday afternoon and stages a shocker. Then Air Force puts a straitjacket on North Carolina in the evening game and scores its own upset. That sets up a Saturday Night Slowdown between two coaches -- Joe Scott and Princeton's John Thompson -- who served on the same Princeton staff under the great guru Carril. Falcons versus Tigers. A masterpiece of patience, passing and planning. With the score tied 32-32 in the waning seconds, a 5-11 shooting guard no one's ever heard of back on Tobacco Road drains a three and launches his team into the four-team Atlanta Regional, March 26-28.

We all know what happens next. Todd Bertuzzi gets elected mayor of Denver. Osama bin Laden turns up at a bowling tournament in Cleveland. Hillary divorces Bill and runs off to the Florida Keys with Dick Cheney's daughter. They don't call it March Madness for nothing.

Meanwhile, we must also acknowledge the death-and-taxes wing of college basketball in Colorado -- which is to say, the amazing performance of Metropolitan State College of Denver. On the Roadrunners' floor at the Auraria Events Center, hardly anyone talks about "diaper dandies" or Dickie V. or "R.P.I." -- that arcane cocktail of wins and losses and strength-of-schedule ratings by which the big-time basketball schools find their proper place in the world. The only thing hard-nosed coach Mike Dunlap's hard-driven team does is win. And win. And win. At this writing, the Roadrunners are 30-2 on the season. Once again, they are ranked number one in NCAA Division II men's basketball, and their 28-game winning streak is the longest in the nation at any level.

There are no point spreads to worry over in Division II, and ESPN almost never stops by to turn the cameras on top scorers Luke Kendall and C.J. Massingale. But if you're looking for a favorite to win the D-2 championship, look no farther than Metro. It would be the little-known commuter school's third national crown in five years. And while that would be unlikely to stir a ripple of regard in Chapel Hill (or even in troubled Boulder), it would represent the kind of dynasty no college basketball team in a thousand-mile radius of Denver can dream of. Is Metro a sure thing? Not exactly. But the 'Runners have a lot better shot than Kerry in Texas. Or Alabama State against Duke. Or the average undergrad trying to spell "Krzyzewski" after a dozen Bud Lights.

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