Feel the magic, baby!

Sideline Scholars

Forget the pucks and pigskin tonight, grab a beer or six and settle in for the first college basketball games of the year. The season tips off with the annual Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, where the last two national champions started their seasons. This year's tourney won't see a national champion, but it does offer some recent hard court heavyweights. Wake Forest and Memphis will battle it out under the lights of Madison Square Garden, while 2003 Final Four contender Marquette will square off against St. John's. Although Dwayne Wade and Marcus Hatten have left their campuses, the matchup should be competitive and physical. On Friday, Pittsburgh will look to increase its clout with a new coach against Alabama, and, in perhaps the best game of the tournament, perennial Cinderella and genuine powerhouse Gonzaga will take on St. Joseph's.

The tournament has raised millions of dollars for the American Cancer Society and always provides an electric atmosphere to tip off the regular season. Smaller teams gain prestige and exposure by playing in the tournament, and big teams like Wake Forest get to show off their dominance and test themselves before the long, tough road of league play. I know the football season - college and pro - is heating up, and no one is more excited about that than me. However, college basketball has a lot of its own magic, and the thought of University of Connecticut making another run for the title sends tingly shivers down my spine. Nothing in sports is as exciting as the drama and tension of the Big Dance in March, and there are a lot of thrilling and heart-rending moments along the way.

Some of this year's pre-season All-Americas should have a big impact this year.

St. Joe's features one of the best backcourts in the country, including pre-season All-America Jameer Nelson. Connecticut's Emeka Okafor is a strong contender for the player of the year award this season and averages close to five blocks a game. If he stays healthy, Okafor will help lead No. 1 UConn to another national championship, which would be its first since 1999. No. 5 Missouri's Rickey Paulding hopes to lead his team past Wayne Simien and Kansas in the Big 12 this year. Yet even if Mizzou can get by Charybdis, it still has to face the Scylla of Oklahoma and Texas.

Arizona should dominate again in the Pacific 10, but Duke might run into some trouble in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Duke tied for second in the ACC last year, and North Carolina State and Wake should give the Blue Devils a good run. The Big East should be a major player this year as it was last with the strong programs of Syracuse, Pitt, UConn and Notre Dame. The impending departure of Virginia Tech and Miami is a big deal in football, but the Hokies and Hurricanes were at the bottom of the barrel in last year's basketball standings. Michigan State should finish better in the Big 10 this year, and the Spartans will be tested against Duke on Dec. 3, one of the biggest games of the early season. Wisconsin and Illinois hope to make it back to the top of the standings as well. Finally, the Southeastern Conference will again feature some of the best teams in the nation. Kentucky - who knows it should have had a national title at the end of last season - and Florida will battle for league dominance, and Alabama will try to be more consistent than last year, when they quickly burst upon the national scene and then vanished just as quickly. Some other teams to watch for are Louisville, Cincinnati, Xavier, Stanford, North Carolina and California.

Regardless of these humble opinions, college basketball is so exciting because it's so unpredictable. Unlike pro basketball, college basketball's crazy tournament mixes things up and makes it one of the most fascinating programs to watch each spring. One of the greatest things to observe is the emergence of a Cinderella team, and if you're a fan of a smaller school - even AU - you know that every year just might be the one where your team achieves its glory.

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