NCAA Tournament About To Heat Up

Spring is in the air, and that means March Madness and brackets, brackets, brackets. NPR's Mike Pesca and University of Maryland star and ACC Player of the Year Greivis Vasquez share a sneak peak at college basketball's biggest event.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The brackets for the NCAA women's college basketball tournament come out later today. Yesterday, on selection Sunday for the men's tournament, 65 teams were put into four brackets, and the games get underway Thursday. The University of Maryland found itself seeded fourth. The team is led by Greivis Vasquez, their star point guard. We'll talk with him in just a couple of minutes. But first, NPR correspondent Mike Pesca is with us. He cover sports and joins us from our bureau in New York. And Mike, nice to have you with us.

MIKE PESCA: Oh, good to be here.

CONAN: And as we handicap these two tournaments, let's start with the women's and the brackets are yet to come out, but if anybody gets within 10 points of the University of Connecticut, it would be considered an upset.

PESCA: That would a moral victory but an actual loss, and that is what Connecticut has been compiling - not only wins, but wins by massive amounts. They - no team has got within single digits of them this year. They hold the record for the most consecutive wins in a row. Now there are other great women's basketball team, Stanford, out there in California. They're the other very, very good team but they did lose to Connecticut head to head.

And there's a third team in the center of the country, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, almost equidistant between the two cities actually, few hundred miles closer to Storrs, Connecticut. And Nebraska used to be undefeated, but over the past weekend, they lost to Texas A&M. So more so than any tournament I can remember, men or women, since the days of John Wooden and UCLA, UConn looms large. Can anyone not only beat the Lady Huskies but give them a game, that's the big question.

CONAN: The men's tournament, a little less easy to handicap. The top seeds are Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse. But none are - all fine teams - but none are considered unbeatable.

PESCA: No, that is right. And a lot of it has to do with what's happened with college basketball, the game itself, where the very best players go to the pros as quickly as they can. So if you look at a player like Kevin Durant, who used to be a high school teammate of the fellow you're about to talk to. Kevin Durant's been playing in the NBA for a couple of years. And a few years ago, he'd still be a college player unless he did something like claim hardship. So there's been a talent drain.

And so what happens is, a couple of things: you either have very good players who stay. Greivis Vasquez is going to be a senior. He stayed at Maryland. His team's got better and better with him leading them. And the university - and Kansas is like that. The University of Kansas has good senior leadership and a very balanced team.

The other thing that happens is just excellent players right out of high school have a big impact, and Kentucky personifies that. They have John Wall, a point guard, they have DeMarcus Cousins, a big man - really a big boy - underneath. And those two guys could go, maybe one in two or one in three, in the NBA draft, and they're part of the reason why Kentucky is such a great team.

CONAN: You also get - a few years ago, everybody will remember the great run of George Mason University; unheralded, small school, not very well seeded, but they made it to the final four, in part, because they had a whole bunch of seniors who played together for four years on a very good team. None of them would make an impact in the NBA, but because they were such a good team together, they were able to make a run. And some people think something like that could happen again with one of these unheralded, well, 10 seeds.

PESCA: Right. Right. So if we bemoan the fact that there is this talent drain to the NBA, the teams that do benefit are perhaps - sometimes are called, euphemistically, mid-major teams or smaller, non-power conference teams. And through cohesion and good coaching and experience, those teams can make a splash in the tournament. But I do have to warn you that the only time a team who was from a non-power conference got that far, was the George Mason team. And it's great to see other teams win a game or two in the tournament. But as far as really threatening for a championship, that has been the dominion of teams from the Big East and the Big 12 and the ACC and the Pac 10 and the kind of conferences that have most of the money and most of the traditional power.

CONAN: Indeed, most of the teams from the Big East are in the tournament this year, half of the 16 teams from the Big East...

PESCA: And seven of these Big 12 so - and that's a great conference, the Big 12 and, you know, that's where Kansas plays.

CONAN: One final question, Mike, and that is every year, there are 65 teams in the men's bracket and they say, well, the 66th team and 67th team...

PESCA: Oh, those poor teams.

CONAN: ...those poor guys, there's a lot of talk that next year we're not going to see 65 teams but, well, over 90. There could be a big expansion of the NCAA men's tournament.

PESCA: Right. Every time - you know, anyone who's ever planned a wedding know that there's always either a third or fourth or fifth cousin, once or twice removed, who's going to be on the outs list. And no matter who it is, you'll always say, well, I've never heard of this guy or I've never - this team wasn't really that good, but isn't it a terrible thing for them?

This year, the bubble, the teams that almost made it, the teams that were left out are not the sort of teams that anyone could really get behind and feel that much sympathy for. They had multiple losses. They had a lot of chances to win. And yes, it's a sad thing that Illinois will have to play in the NIT, and a further sad thing that Illinois couldn't host a game because Cirque du Soleil is appearing at the University of Illinois, so they have to play a road game.

But, yeah. So there are always the teams that are out. And so who knows? Maybe they'll expand to 96, but then aren't we in the position of, you know, a little league, where everyone gets a participation trophy at some point?

CONAN: Mike, stay with us, if you will. But we have on the phone now Greivis Vasquez. He's on the line with us from College Park, Maryland, where his team is practicing for their game Friday night in Spokane, Washington against the University of Houston.

Greivis Vasquez, nice to have you with us on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. GREIVIS VASQUEZ (Student, Basketball Player, University of Maryland; ACC Player of the Year): Oh, thank you so much. Thank you for having me today. And I'm really happy to be with you guys. And, you know, we just had a great practice today.

CONAN: And the peculiar geography of the NCAA is you're in the Midwest bracket, and you're going to be opening up in Spokane, Washington.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VASQUEZ: Yes. And we never have been there. I mean, I have - coming out of high school, I thought I was going to go to Gonzaga. So it's all the way down on - near Spokane. So I think it's going to be my first time. I think it's going to be very fun. So it's going to be a great week for us.

CONAN: As mentioned, you went to high school in Rockville, Maryland, and one of your teammates is now one of the great stars of the National Basketball Association.

Mr. VASQUEZ: Oh, that's right. Kevin Durant, man. He's - he was a great teammate in high school. He's still a great - we still keep a great relationship. I can see what he's doing in the NBA. He's unbelievable. You know, he's definitely a big-time talent. And not only that, he's just - I think he's a better person than he is a player. That's why he's doing so good in the NBA. And that's what separates him from all the players. You know, he's very, very humble and he works extremely hard.

CONAN: You were a - took a little longer to bloom, not a starter immediately at Maryland, unlike Kevin Durant, who was, well, won and done. We've heard that expression. But you did give some thought at the end of last season to turning pro.

Mr. VASQUEZ: Well, yeah. It was - I wanted to try out. I wanted to test the waters and see where I'm at. And it was a great experience for me, because I got to work out against good players and great guards. You know, they're playing in the NBA right now. And that really got me better, you know? And that decision of coming back to school, getting, you know, one more year under my belt and then just, you know, continue to work hard and trying to lead my team definitely helped just put myself in a good situation.

CONAN: You're now the ACC Player of the Year. You've improved in your scoring and your assists. You're likely to be a very high draft pick. You've certainly done yourself proud this year. But I'm sure at one point, did you ever think of, oh, my gosh - I tear a hamstring or break my leg and my career could be over before I get to go into the professional draft.

Mr. VASQUEZ: Yeah. Well, I thought about that, too. But one thing about myself and about my values, you know, one of the reasons I came back to school was just because I wanted to get my degree. I wanted to - I want to be somebody, not only on the court, but off the court, also. And that's what I want to - I want to really please my mom by getting my degree - also myself, because I can set a good example for other kids.

In college, you know, I'm trying to reach a goal, which is to play in the NBA, but they might not be as ready at that time, so they can come back and get their degree and be somebody, you know, besides a basketball player. So that's who I want to be.

CONAN: You went to high school in Rockville, Maryland, but you were born in Caracas, Venezuela. And I have to ask: Caracas in Venezuela - Caracas in particular, Venezuela in general - not considered, you know, a basketball power. How did you get started in basketball in a country where they're crazy about baseball and soccer?

Mr. VASQUEZ: Well, it's very funny, you know? My father used - he wanted me to play baseball so bad, you know? I was actually pretty good in baseball. I just couldn't really hit the ball. I was a great fielder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VASQUEZ: But I, you know, but the only thing is my personality. I'm so energetic. You know, I'm just all over the place. You know, I love running and moving around. So playing baseball is a game that you have to - I used to play short stop and centerfield. So I was playing the minor leagues when I was, you know, when I was younger. And it was really hard for a kid to hit the ball all the way to the centerfield and the short stop. So I told my father, dad, I just don't want to wait still for the ball. I want to do something else. I want to run up and down. I want to jump.

So he took me to this basketball school back home. And then, you know, I started to play basketball when I was like five, six years old - not (unintelligible) I was playing baseball. But, you know, I was starting to get the love for the game. And then, you know, since then, I loved the game so much, and it's my passion. It's what I love doing.

CONAN: And did your family move to the United States?

Mr. VASQUEZ: No, no, no. Not yet. You know, it's going to depend whether, you know, I get drafted or when I'm getting drafted. My family, they'll probably going to come visit. You know, I'm probably going to stay here, have my family and stuff. I don't know yet.

CONAN: I don't want to give anything away, Greivis. You're going to be drafted.

Mr. VASQUEZ: Yes, sir.

CONAN: Yes. I think - I don't think that's going to come as a shock to anybody. Did they send you to high school here, specifically with the idea that you could then go on to college in the United States?

Mr. VASQUEZ: Well, that was the main thing. You know, I went to - I used to play with my - well, I still play with my national team. But I played with national team a couple of years ago with the young kids. And then I represented my country, and I went to Brazil. I went to a camp.

Now, the NBA does it every year, I think, the NBA without Borders. They go to a country, and at that time, it was in South America. So the camp, it was in Brazil. And then I went to that camp, and a couple of coaches and a couple agents, they offer me, you know, whether I wanted to go to Spain and start a professional career at the age 15...

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. VASQUEZ: ...make a little money, or, you know, go to high school, because a lot of Argentina players, they go to Spain, they go to Europe instead of just coming over here and get an education. So, you know, at the time I talked to my family. I talked to my mom and dad. And obviously, my mom and dad wanted me to get an education.

So, obviously, I used to watch a lot of college basketball, NBA. So my dream was to, you know, make it to the NBA, but before that, play in college. So fortunately, Stu Vetter, my high school coach, he contacted me with Coach Atkins, the assistant coach...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VASQUEZ: ...of Montrose at the time. They - and they, you know, they keep in contact with me and they got me over here.

CONAN: Okay. We're talking with Greivis Vasquez, the star point guard of the Maryland Terrapins, the fourth seed in the Midwest region of this year's men's college basketball tournament. Also with us, NPR's correspondent in New York, Mike Pesca.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Mike Pesca, as you listen to Greivis Vasquez' story, these are opportunities that were not available to foreign basketball players even a few years ago.

PESCA: Yes. And it's more remarkable still that we're talking about Hispanic and Latino players. And Greivis, I wanted to ask you, you know, I don't know if you saw this, but last week, Torii Hunter, a baseball player, kind of ham-handedly talked about the lack of African-Americans in baseball and the number of Latinos in baseball.

But quietly, in basketball, the opposite thing is happening. And my question to you is, guys like Edgar Sosa of Louisville or Denis Clemente of Kansas State and you, all Latino players, are you friendly with those guys? Do you talk about how more and more Latino players are playing in the NCAA these days?

Mr. VASQUEZ: Well, I know Edgar Sosa. You know, we haven't in touch with we play together in those Nike camps when we were in high school. I know Clemente, too. We played against each other in ACC, because he used to play for Miami.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. VASQUEZ: You know what? I wish nothing but the best, because we represent our culture. We're coming from a different country, and it's hard, man. It's very hard, especially for us - especially for me and Clemente, maybe Edgar. He born here, or his family moved here. But, like, just learning the language, different culture, different food. You know, the first couple of years, I couldn't even see my family. So that's the hardest...

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. VASQUEZ: ...part. I mean, you have to make a you have to make a huge sacrifice for you for me to be able to reach my goals, you know? And then Latinos I mean, Latinos work hard. We work hard, you know? And then a lot of people question our athleticism and all that, but we would play with a lot of passion, and we play with a lot of heart.

So I'm just happy for those guys because they're doing good. They're playing in the tournament, as well as another guy that plays Marquette, David Cubillan. He's from Venezuela. So some - and, you know, I just want to see more Latinos playing the game.

CONAN: I wonder, was there how important was the example of the Olympic Games and international competition, where you saw teams from Brazil and especially Argentina do so well?

Mr. VASQUEZ: Well, that's huge, man. That's huge. And I tell you why, because those guys inspire guys like me. Like I'm I love watching Ginobili play. I love watching the Brazil national team play because those guys play together, you know? Sometimes talent don't be - talent sometimes don't be the teams that played together. The teams now understand the concept of winning as a team, and that's what you're seeing nowadays.

It's really hard for the United States to beat teams like Spain, Brazil, Argentina, because those teams, they know how to play the game. And they're very, very physical. So that's why we're going to the table. We play with it's more physicality, and it's just more physical and then it's really basketball-oriented. Because we know we probably know (unintelligible) Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, so we have to do a different things in order for - to score or to play the game.

CONAN: One more question, and we'll let you get back to I guess you're going to have to pack and get ready for your trip to Spokane. But have you taken a look at the University of Houston, your opponent there in the first round of the NCAA tournament?

Mr. VASQUEZ: Well, yeah. That - we definitely did to watch film, watch tape, and they're pretty good. You know, they quick. They got one guard, he's the leading scorer in the nation, so we have to be careful ahead. And then they got a great shooter. Their point guard is pretty fast. So we got to (unintelligible). We've got to play perimeter, defense and then we got a rebound.

CONAN: They don't they're not noted for their defense.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Tuesday, at the least.

Mr. VASQUEZ: You know, we don't want to underestimate any team in the NCAA, because this is March Madness. Anything can happen. So we're working very hard. We had a great practice today. And we did a good job, you know, going to their place and then understanding what we need to do to stop them and understanding what we need to do in order for us to win the game.

So we're hungry. We desperately want to do something special in this tournament, and we have to win our first game in order for us to advance and then trying to go to the Sweet 16. So it's going to be very, very hard, but I think we can do this.

CONAN: Well, Greivis Vasquez, good luck to you and the team from the University of Maryland, the co-regular season champions of the ACC. Greivis Vasquez himself, the Player of the Year in the ACC, and his coach, Gary Williams, the Coach of the Year in the ACC. We'll be looking forward to the game on Friday night. Thanks very much.

Mr. VASQUEZ: Well, thank you guys for having me.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. VASQUEZ: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And Mike Pesca, we want to thank you for your time today, too.

PESCA: Ah, good to talk hoops with you, Neal.

CONAN: Mike Pesca, joining us from our bureau in New York.

Tomorrow: After shattering a glass ceiling, what's next? We'll talk about first women. Join us for that.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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