March Madness Revs Up With 'Round Of 64'

The "round of 64" began Thursday in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

For NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And I'm Melissa Block. The sounds of March are upon us.

The NCAA men's basketball tournament is under way in earnest with the Round of 64 starting today. And take one last look at that bracket you filled up because chances are it's already got some issues.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Our sympathies to those with high hopes for Southern Mississippi, Colorado State and Montana. They're all out, along with BYU and UNC Ashville, which played a close game against top-seeded Syracuse. In the end, Syracuse pulled away, winning 72-65.

BLOCK: NPR sports correspondents Tom Goldman and Mike Pesca are camped out at two tournament sites. Mike will have the scene from Louisville, Kentucky, in a few minutes. First, here's NPR's Tom Goldman in Portland, Oregon.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: March Madness serves many purposes. It's an early springtime adrenaline rush for much of the nation. It's a chance to wear an old college sweatshirt - how did it get that snug - and feel pride and self-worth with every bucket for the good guys. It's a multibillion-dollar piggy bank for the NCAA, a few hundred not-so-hard-earned bucks for office pool winners. And it helps with math.

CURTIS FIELDS: We're going to use it for fractions.

GOLDMAN: Yes, 9-year-old Curtis Fields and his classmates from Harrison Park Elementary took a field trip to Portland's Rose Garden, ready to pay close attention to the players getting fouled.

FIELDS: Like they made this many out of 10 free throws, what fraction of free throws did they make?

GOLDMAN: Well, Curtis, of all the college teams gathered at this sub-regional, Davidson did the best this season. The Wildcats, for North Carolina, made 542 free throws out of 709. That's 76.4 percent and ninth best in the nation. And what did that get them? A long trip to Oregon and a date with a perennial power.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Today's first game, featuring the Davidson Wildcats and the Louisville Cardiners(ph).

GOLDMAN: Um, that's Cardinals. Oh, well, everyone is a little jittery at the start of this thing, perhaps even Louisville, a team that knows its way around an NCAA tournament. The Cardinals are a very successful program with a famous head coach, Rick Pitino. But they lost in the opening round of the tournament the last two seasons. Before today's opener, a reporter asked Pitino twice if that made Pitino's team tight.

RICK PITINO: We don't feel any pressure. We just treat every game as if it's, you know - what do you want me to say, we're shaking in our boots? What would you like me to answer? Answer it for yourself because we're just going to play every game. We'd love to go to win - at Final Four every year. Unless I had a crystal ball, I couldn't give you an answer to your question. It's all conjecture. Try a third time.

GOLDMAN: No crystal balls, but there are several glass slippers in Portland. Two of the eight teams have had prominent Cinderella moments in the past few years. Little Davidson got to the Elite Eight in 2008. Last year, Virginia Commonwealth was the talk of the tourney, a mid-major school led by a coach with the coolest name in the bracket: Shaka Smart. VCU was a play-in team that swept to the Final 4. VCU's opponent today in Portland, Wichita State, is a team that began the tournament, according to bracketology scientists, with a potential for a VCU-like run.

Yes, Rick Pitino, it's all conjecture. But that's what we do. It's up to the players, like Louisville junior guard Peyton Siva, to keep things real - boring but real.

PEYTON SIVA: Like Kyle said, we're just, you know, happy to be here and blessed to be here. And right now, it's just Davidson that's on our mind.

GOLDMAN: And now, Davidson is in Louisville's rearview mirror. The Cardinals broke out of their one-and-done rut with a 69-62 victory. For Davidson, no repeat of the 2008 magic. For Davidson fan Peter Keller, who made a long flight from North Carolina and now is headed back after one game, well worth it, for his Wildcats.

PETER KELLER: These are like our kids after a while. We live and die by them. So wherever they go, we'll be there.

GOLDMAN: For the Cardinals, they're going to the next round here in Portland. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: I'm Mike Pesca here in Louisville, where it seems that every team in the state of Kentucky is at play, expect for the Cardinals themselves. The afternoon game featured the Murray State Racers...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: R-A-C...

PESCA: ...living up to their name, running Colorado State out of the gym. The Murray fans in the arena were vocal, but most applause heard here was polite rather than impassioned. That's because tickets to this site, the KFC Yum Center, were gobbled up by that mobile crew of blue, fans of the Kentucky Wildcats. Their game against Western Kentucky is the main attraction this evening. I asked Kentucky fan David Conrad if it was odd to essentially host a game on the home court of the Cardinals.

DAVID CONRAD: I don't mind Louisville. They don't really bother me. But a lot of big blue fans don't really care for them.

PESCA: Dustin Lee speaks for that well-represented demographic.

DUSTIN LEE: No. There's two teams I root for: Kentucky and whoever Louisville is playing.

PESCA: And the feeling runs both ways, says Andy Kerrick, a Louisville fan. He was interrupted.

ANDY KERRICK: I can't stand them.

PESCA: Do most Louisville fans really just...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Go blue.

KERRICK: See? That's why. That explains - I don't even need to say anything else, man. That explains everything.

PESCA: So you're saying if you were a Kentucky fan and a Cardinals fan walked by, he wouldn't say go Cardinals?

KERRICK: As a Louisville fan, would I say that to them?

PESCA: Yeah.

KERRICK: No.

PESCA: Oh, OK.

KERRICK: No.

PESCA: You're more polite?

KERRICK: It's called, you know, respect, education, not being a jack (bleep).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PESCA: That's what it's called?

KERRICK: Yeah.

PESCA: Cats, Cardinals and donkeys are just portions of the overall Kentucky basketball menagerie. The Racers of Murray State have an equine mascot, and according to their president, Randy Dunn, an equanimity when it comes to their in-state rivals.

DR. RANDY DUNN: It's kind of like kinfolk, right? When you're playing someone outside the Commonwealth, we hang together and support one another.

PESCA: All the Kentucky and Louisville fans I spoke with say they also root for Murray and Western Kentucky - lovable unthreatening upstarts, I guess. But it's limiting to just speak of Division I college basketball in town. Bellarmine, the defending Division II champion, is a Louisville school that has again reached the D2 quarterfinals this year, held at Northern Kentucky University. And then there's the state high school tournament now under way. Several Murray fans are driving from Louisville this afternoon to Lexington this evening to catch the Marshall High School Marshals. Indiana might have the reputation as the nation's basketball hotbed, but, wait, David Conrad takes issue with what I just said.

CONRAD: I don't know, but I don't know where you heard where Indiana is that big in basketball. But I would dispute that, so...

PESCA: I think I saw it in a movie, "Hoosiers."

CONRAD: Well, you know how movies are; they don't always have all the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PESCA: Truth be told, North Carolina has five teams in this tournament. But on a per capita basis, Kentucky's four is more impressive. Louisville and Murray State have already won. Kentucky is playing Western Kentucky. So this, in many ways, is an all but perfect day for bluegrass basketball. Mike Pesca, NPR News, Louisville, Kentucky.

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