OPINION — Like It Is

OPINION | WALLY HALL: Greatest time of the year is off and running

Anticipation was running high Thursday morning as the count down to the real first game of the NCAA Tournament, which started as soon as the feet hit the floor.

It seemed it was just good luck that the first game would feature a SEC team when No. 8 Mississippi State took on No. 9 Michigan State on CBS, a channel known by heart.

This is yours truly's favorite time of the year.

Whether you call it the NCAA Basketball Tournament, March Madness or the Big Dance, it is all the same: survive and advance. The ultimate goal of every team is to win six games, at least it is after the initial play-in games.

The love of this event went into high gear in 1981 when the Arkansas Razorbacks traveled to Austin, Texas, for a March 12 date with Mercer.

There were only 48 teams back then and it was the fifth consecutive appearance by the Razorbacks, who made the Final Four in 1977, when only 32 teams were privileged to be invited to the tournament.

The romance began with the Triplets -- Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph -- along with Jim Counce and Steve Schall, but it became a relationship in 1981 when actually covering the tournament was a reality.

Arkansas beat Mercer and then took on defending national champions Louisville. The Razorbacks trailed by one point with five seconds remaining, just enough for U.S. Reed to drive 49 feet from the basket -- for some reason the Cardinals didn't try to force the right-handed shooting guard to go left -- where he launched a perfect game winner.

Next was New Orleans and the Midwest Regional, where Arkansas was eliminated by a very talented LSU.

On the drive home, my mind began to scheme. The next year, after the Hogs were eliminated in their first game by Kansas State, the late great John Robert Starr agreed to let me continue to cover the tournament by following the Houston Cougars.

On my office wall is a Phi Slama Jama pennant that was made during their three-year run to the Final Four.

In 1982, Houston lost to North Carolina, who had a freshman by the name of Michael Jordan who hit the winning shot against Georgetown on that Monday night. That is the only NCAA championship game to ever feature three who would be named to the NBA 50 Greatest players.

Jordan, James Worthy and Patrick Ewing made that list. Also playing in that game were future NBA stars Eric "Sleepy" Floyd and Sam Perkins.

The next year Houston made the championship but was upset by North Carolina State and in 1984 Georgetown beat Houston 84-75.

It would be 37 years before the Cougars would get back to the Final Four, where they lost to Baylor in the opening game. Under Coach Kelvin Sampson they would made the Elite Eight and then the Sweet 16. This year they are a No. 1 seed and start their quest today against Longwood.

Anyway, Mississippi State was a pick in the bracket, as was BYU, making your trusty scribe 0-2 to start the tournament, and more was expected of the Gamecocks.

First, maybe the Bulldogs have worn gray uniforms before, but it was disconcerting as their official colors are maroon and white.

It didn't bode well for the SEC that the Bulldogs fell behind early and often as their perimeter defense was bad. The Spartans hit 10 of 23 three-pointers. It was a game of turnovers as they combined for 31. But the Bulldogs scored just 19 points off Michigan State's 16 turnovers, who scored 29 off 15 by the Dogs in the 69-51 win.

Regardless, it is here and for this reporter, it is the greatest event in the world.

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