Early Birds Create 'March Madness' Stir

One thing that makes the NCAA basketball tournament unique: early action is often at least as exciting as the championship round. We get courtside reports from Portland and Philadelphia.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It is day two of March Madness. These first few days of the NCAA's men's college basketball tournament are a sumptuous buffet for basketball fans. All 64 teams play. Games overlap and collide with each other from arenas across the country. We have NPR's Tom Goldman in Portland, Oregon and we sent Mike Pesca to Philadelphia. Their mission? To follow the opening round games yesterday afternoon and evening. We're about to get a sense of the madness as they checked in with each other throughout the day.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

TOM GOLDMAN: Hey Mike, how's it going?

MIKE PESCA: Pretty good. I'm sitting in an empty arena in Philadelphia. We're between sessions. How about you?

GOLDMAN: Well, we've got some action going on right now. I'm in the second game of the early session and it's the University of Washington with a 14 point lead over Mississippi State right now. I think people thought it was going to be a little closer and to tell you the truth, they're playing a home game here, Mike.

PESCA: Well, how far is Portland from the Seattle campus?

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

GOLDMAN: Washington came down. They're about two and a half hours up interstate five here. And you know, the NCAA with its pod system tried to make it so the seeded teams are closer to home, so you can have this kind of a effect, and so far it seems to be helping.

PESCA: I got one better than that. Here in Philadelphia in the night session, Villanova's going to play. The Villanova campus is 20 miles max from the Wachovia center and the rule is…

GOLDMAN: Oh man.

PESCA: …the rule is you can play - they'll schedule a home game if you play three or fewer games at that particular arena and Villanova played exactly three games at this arena. They went right up to the line and didn't cross it, which pretty much is how you get success in the NCAA.

GOLDMAN: Nicely done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Hey Tom, did you see this guy from Memphis? The show he put on in Memphis's game against Cal State-Northridge. The guy is amazing. Roburt Sallie - that's spelled Roburt r-o-b-u-r-t and the guy hit 10 three pointers, which is an NCAA tournament record. You know Tom this guy Sallie is a really interesting story. He's signed to play at University of Washington actually out of high school.

He didn't have the grades. Then he took a year in a prep school, signed to play at the University of Nebraska. There were all these questions about his transcripts, he enrolled in Nebraska. He didn't take a class. He wound up being banned by the entire Big 12 because of, it seems like a quirk in the rules in the rules. He's a 23-year-old sophomore and before today he averaged, I think, four and a half points a game. That's what the tournament is all about.

GOLDMAN: That's amazing. Hey, well listen. So, we're getting back to Washington and Mississippi State right now. Looks like the Washington Huskies, with about (unintelligible) minutes left could win this thing. How about we check-in in the evening session.

PESCA: Yeah, call me during the Villanova game.

GOLDMAN: Okay, sounds great, Mike. Talk to you later.

PESCA: Take care, bye.

GOLDMAN: At the evening session in Portland fourth-seeded Gonzaga played thirteenth seeded Akron which was in the tournament for the first time in 23 years. I needed a crash course in Akron basketball, especially its weird name, the Zips. Donna Dambrot, wife of Akron's head coach helped me out.

Ms. DONNA DAMBROT: Well, Akron is the rubber capital of the world and they have these galoshes with zippers on it. That's where Zippers came from, so they shortened it to Zips.

GOLDMAN: So the official team name is, what, the Zips or the Zippers?

Ms. DAMBROT: They used to be the Zippers. We're the Zips.

GOLDMAN: Now tell me what your sign says here.

Ms. DAMBROT: Says I'd rather be a Zip than a Zag.

GOLDMAN: Unfortunately for Dambrot it was better to be a Zag. Gonzaga beat the Zips by 13 points, another favorite over an underdog. Where were the David's beating Goliaths? Maybe back in Philly.

PESCA: Yeah so here's the situation. The Virginia Commonwealth is down by one with the ball, thirteen seconds left.

GOLDMAN: UCLA was comfortably ahead before weren't they?

PESCA: Yes they had a 10 point half time lead. The ball has been bounded and pushed up past half court. Guard Maynor takes it and he's looking. He's being pressured by UCLA three, two, Maynor fires. No good.

GOLDMAN: Oh.

PESCA: Just barely missed the front of the rim.

GOLDMAN: Oh.

PESCA: Hey give me a quick update on your game and maybe we'll call it a night.

GOLDMAN: Yeah well, you know we got a minute 45 left here. This is Western Kentucky is ahead of Illinois. Western Kentucky is the 12th seed. Illinois is a fifth seed, although Illinois is missing its most important player. Right now it's 71 to 62 and it looks like Western Kentucky is going to get our first upset of the night, Mike.

BLOCK: And Western Kentucky did pull of the upset, beating Illinois 76 to 72. That was NPR's Tom Goldman in Portland talking with NPR's Mike Pesca, in Philadelphia, as they savored the madness on the first day of the NCAA basketball tournament.

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