As I was explaining to my friend yesterday while watching Villanova reap the rewards of home cooking -- they probably could have started tackling American's players with impunity -- I have a highly elaborated system for determining whom to root for in college basketball games:
• The Cal Bears come first, always. Maryland is a talented, if inconsistent team -- they beat North Carolina and Wake Forest and lost to Todd Bozeman's Morgan State squad -- that plays in what is either the best or second-best conference in the land. But we could have won that game. I love the players and I'm happy with Mike Montgomery as coach. Nevertheless, they need to be called out. If they all played like Jorge Gutierrez, the result would have been in doubt until the last seconds. Still there's next year to look forward to, when all of our key players should be back and our post presence should be stronger.
• The Syracuse Orange always come second. Because they are my father's alma mater, to which he is strenuously devoted, I grew up rooting for them and have never stopped. It helps that they've had the same coach, Jim Boeheim, since I first registered that I was watching them, back in the late 1970s. The Carmelo Anthony-led national championship season thrilled me enormously, as did this year's six-overtime victory over UConn in the Big East Tournament.
• The rest of the Pac 10 Conference comes next. Internally, my allegiances shift both strategically -- I root for what will benefit Cal -- and as a result of my preference for underdogs. Generally speaking, I'm least likely to root for USC and ASU, though there are times when I have wanted nothing more than for Arizona to lose. Now that the Wildcats' smugness has dissipated, however, with the departure of the too-often-smug Silver Fox, I find it much easier to root for them. I really like interim coach Russ Pennell's manner. And Jordan Hill is beautiful to watch. External to the conference, I always pull for its teams unless Syracuse is involved, which almost never happens. Right now I'm hoping that the rest of its entrants in the field of 64 make a good showing, in part because Cal will be better positioned next year if the conference stops getting dissed by those possessed of East Coast bias.
• I root for the West Coast Conference next. I started watching Gonzaga in the mid-1990s, before they became a big story. I was already following the West Coast Conference then, because it has three teams from the Bay Area, USF, Saint Mary's and Santa Clara, which I prefer in that order. Although I was inclined to root against the Bulldogs, given the threat they posed to the Bay Area schools, I found myself liking the way they played. When they had success in the NCAA tournament in the lat 1990s, I was hooked. I like the current team's chances of making it deep into the tournament better than any of their recent squads. Austin Daye needs to step up, though. I'm also sad that Saint Mary's was excluded from The Dance, even though I wanted Arizona to get in. Patty Mills is really fun to watch.
• I root for other teams West of the Rockies next. This surprised my friend, who figured my East Coast roots would manifest themselves at this stage in the order. Because teams from this region have been consistently discriminated against in the media and polls, they ignite my affection for the underdog. Also, there were several years in the early 2000s when ESPN was running a 10pm game from the Mountain West conference on Super Tuesday. I love watching college basketball when I'm unwinding, so I really took to the conference. Back when Utah was still coached by Rick Majerus and Wyoming had Josh Davis, there were lots of good games.
• I root for the Big East after that. Actually, there's some confusion about the order here. Sometimes I'll pull for a non-Syracuse Big East team against a team from the West. Old habits die hard. Plus, there are some great programs in the conference. Within the Big East, my order of preference has changed over the years. I used to despise Georgetown, but will now root for them often. I root against UConn within the conference, but usually want them to win when they are outside it. Back when Mike Jarvis was coaching St. John's, especially when Ron Artest was on the team, I really liked them. That preference has faded, though, during their long decline. I think at this point I'd rank my Big East favorites as follows: 1) Syracuse (obviously); 2) Villanova (the Philly connection matters to me and I still remember their awesome upset of Georgetown in the title game with great fondness); 3) Providence (I spent much of a summer in the city, at RISD's "pre-college" art camp, before my senior year of high school); 4) UConn (I like Jim Calhoun, though I normally don't go for his type of personality); and 5) Georgetown (I grew to have affection for John Thompson in the 1990s. But I like his son better. And I almost always like teams that run some version of the Princeton offense, which is pretty to watch).
• After that, my preference in the tournament is almost always going to be for the underdog, unless that underdog is from a power conference, in which case my ranking of the power conferences (see below) comes into play.
• As far as the power conferences go, I have pretty stable preferences. As previously noted, I always put the Pac 10 first, unless Syracuse is playing, and the Big East second. Beyond that, my rankings go as follows: 3) ACC, with the exception of Duke (because I first got into serious basketball viewing after moving to Maryland, when I had the old B+W television in my room for a while and could watch Al Wood, Mike Gminski and Albert King do their stuff. Back then, I liked Virginia first -- the college I then had a mind to attend, for somewhat silly Thomas Jefferson-related reasons -- and Maryland second. Now I favor Maryland over the rest of the conference, with Virginia and Boston College, which I liked in the Big East, following behind. I don't like the Tar Heels much, though I used to like Dean Smith enough to root for them at times. But I'll always root for them against Duke. I'll root for almost anyone against Duke.); 4) Big 12, with the exception of Texas and Oklahoma (I kind of like Kansas as a concept, possibly because I like the font on their uniforms or because Danny Manning was so impressive. I can imagine living happily in Lawrence, which is a wonderful town. I also can muster a little enthusiasm for Oklahoma State, especially since they often give their in-state rivals fits.); Big 10 (My dad got his Ph.D. at Penn State, so I grew up rooting for them after Syracuse. I favor them over the rest of the conference, but also don't consider them part of the "real" Big-10. Beyond that, it's hard for me to muster much enthusiasm either way. The Big 10 bores me, really. I did root hard for Magic's Spartans in 1979 and find Tom Izzo to be an appealing coach. I also must confess to liking Michigan's uniforms -- sorry, siyeh -- which remind me of Cal's, only with more classic styling); SEC (I hate the SEC in football, except for the perpetual underdogs like Vanderbilt and Mississippi, which I root for against the teams I loathe like Florida, LSU and Georgia. My basketball antipathy towards the conference is slightly less intense, especially now that it largely resembles a mid-major. That said, the only teams I can sort of pull for in the conference on the hardwood, unless Duke -- see Jamal Mashburn -- is the opponent -- are Vanderbilt and Tennessee, because I like the way Bruce Pearl makes them play.)
Presenting my preferences in a sequential list like this can generate confusion. The fact that I hate Duke should probably have been mentioned earlier, since I will root for almost anyone -- I did pull for them against UNLV back in the early 1990s -- against them. And there are other nuances that come into play as in the case of 8-9 games where there's no obvious underdog. Overall, though, this gives a pretty good sense of where my heart will be during the Madness. Go Orange! Go Pac 10!