The greatest of sporting days has finally arrived: welcome to the first Thursday of the NCAA Tournament. We are only a few hours away from tipoff at the Wachovia Center, as college basketball stamps its authority on the national conscience for the next three weeks.
At this hour, the bracket is at its most whole. With the play-in game complete, the field and the form stand at a perfectly symmetrical 64 teams. But it will not be long before that symmetry is shattered, as teams advance one by one to the next stage.
When the final horns of the final sessions sound across the country tonight, the game will be in a state of imbalance. Sixteen second-round bracket lines will have been filled in, while 16 others will remain empty. For now, though, the landscape is smooth and even.
What better time to get together for a chat? I'll be here until 11:30, and I'll take as many of your questions and comments as I can.
But first, it's time for me to pick the teams I think will contest the national championship in Detroit, and to crown an overall winner.
One last reminder that I am making the same picks here as I made in the full-bracket contest in our reader group for Philly.com's Hoops Hysteria contest. I have made a number of different picks in the round-by-round contest, just for the heck of it. We'll see which bracket does better. By the way, I believe you still have a little bit of time left to join if you haven't yet.
M1. Louisville over W3. Missouri
The Cardinals not only have the talent to beat the Tigers, but the athleticism to give 40 minutes of Hell just as good as they get it. You know Rick Pitino will love being in the spotlight, and all those NBA stars will put Pitino on the verge of becoming the first coach to ever win national championships with two different schools.
E1. Pittsburgh over S1. North Carolina
My motto for this NCAA Tournament, and indeed for much of this season, has been that if you ask me whether I would pick any one team against the field to win the national championship, I would take the field every time.
I've asked myself the question most often with regards to North Carolina. But over the course of the season, and especially the last few weeks, the team I've come closest to being willing to take against the field is Pittsburgh.
Yes, the Panthers lost late in February at Providence; and yes, they were knocked out of the Big East Tournament in their first game by bitter rivals West Virginia. But this is the time of year when a team that can pound you relentlessly wins big games.
North Carolina has better skilled players, bet I can't help thinking that Pitt's ruggedness will prevent the Tar Heels from opening up the game and really playing their style. The battle between DeJuan Blair and Tyler Hansbrough will rightly claim the headlines, and Ty Lawson can match Levance Fields in the backcourt. But this game will be decided at the other positions, as I don't think Danny Green and Deon Thompson will be able to match Sam Young, Gilbert Brown and Tyrell Biggs.
We can only hope that if it comes to pass, the game lives up to the hype such a matchup would surely receive.
E1. Pittsburgh over M1. Louisville
We have heard the claims all season about how this year's Big East is among the greatest leagues of all time. While the conference did not receive the nine or ten NCAA Tournament bids some had predicted early on, the selection committe paid it a plenty strong compliment by awarding three of its teams No. 1 seeds.
I have given it two more: five of my Elite Eight teams are from the Big East, and two of them are in the national championship game. If Pitt-North Carolina was a series instead of one game, perhaps the Tar Heels would be here instead - and that game would be spectacular as well.
But while some in the country will not be entertained by the style of game these two teams would produce against each other, those of us who have watched the Big East all season will pay rapt attention from start to finish. Both teams are replete with size, skill and strength, topped off by two of the best coaches in the sport.
The Panthers and Cardinals only met once this season: on January 17 at Freedom Hall in Louisville. The Cardinals won, 69-63, due in no small part to DeJuan Blair fouling out after spending only 20 minutes on the floor. It was a sloppy game to say the least: Pitt shot 35 percent from the field and committed 20 turnovers, while Louisville shot 39 percent from the field and committed 19 turnovers.
I doubt a rematch in the national championship game would be much cleaner, in part because I suspect the shooting environment at Ford Field will be extremely difficult. Remember that the floor will be laid out parallel with the football field instead of perpendicular to it at one end of the stands.
This means that the fans that normally form the shooter's backdrop in an arena will be farther from the basket, and if the court is as elevated as it was during last year's Midwest Regional Final they'll also be farther below the rim than usual. I can't imagine that the players will be fully acclimated to it after only a few days.
Then again, it's probably also fair to suspect that a lot of the points in this game will be scored from two-point range, and the big men inside will have an easier time judging shot angles than the perimeter guards.
We've all heard plenty about how many NBA-caliber players Louisville has, and they may well have more than Pitt. But the Panthers have the best one of all in DeJuan Blair, and I'll back the Pittsburgh native to be the star of the show.
After all, this is the same venue in which the Steelers won the Super Bowl a few years ago. You think that won't be on Blair's mind?
So there you have it. Pittsburgh is my choice for national champion, and DeJuan Blair will be the Most Outstanding Player after leading the industrial-strength Panthers to a championship in the Motor City.
Now, at long last, it's time for the real Big Dance to begin.