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  IF SLIME WAS SUGAR, THESE WOULD BE THE SWEETEST 16 TEAMS IN THE NCAA TOURNEY.  
   
   
  Just imagine Ted Kennedy throwing a three-week rager in the wake of Chappaquiddick -- or Enron holding a Lollapalooza concert for its former employees in the parking lot of its former Houston headquarters.

Well, that's exactly what the NCAA is asking us to do this week -- look past a year filled where amateur athletes got paid, coaches looked the other way and academic standards are so laughable that prisons have a better graduation rate than some Division 1 basketball programs.

College basketball is battling scandals that would make Gary Condit wince. There's the college president at St. Bonaventure going over his athletic director to let a kid with a welding certificate play center. There's the coach at Georgia with enough allegations of doling out cash and academic fraud to make even the SEC -- the Sopranos of college conferences -- blush.

Oh, and don't forget ol' Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno. He's returned and still breaking the rules -- apparently Tark must have hired all of Minnesota's academic advisors, who were so good at having tutors write papers for "student" athletes that the school had to vacate its 1997 Final Four appearance.

Ahh, but that will all be gone soon. When Holy Cross (God bless em.) tips off with Marquette at 12:20 on Thursday afternoon, bars will be packed, office televisions will get flipped on and memories will become short. The NCAA Tournament is that double shot of Wild Turkey that basketball uses to forget all its ills.

But ask any college basketball coach, or even most football ones for that matter, and they'll tell you it's not who's doing the cheating, but how much they're doing. In that spirit, it would only be fitting to offer a bracket to the true spirit of March, honoring the delinquents, hypocrites and time tested screw ups in college sports.

Just remember, cheaters always prosper. Here's my Sweet 16.

Kentucky -- Ah, from its racist roots under coach Adolph Rupp in the 1930's to a point shaving scandal in the 1940's to wide-spread cheating ring that won the local paper a Pulitzer back in the 1980's, Kentucky's long been a stalwart NCAA miscreant. Is there any wonder that this school has 1,843 wins, more than any other school over the last 100 years?

Wisconsin -- Let's not forget these Badgers, who had a nice little "Sneakergate" scandal two years ago when 26 football players got the deep-deep-deep discount on their footwear. It's not exactly horrible, but they're up against some truly weak competition when it comes to cheating, with NCAA goody goodies and never-beens Weber State, Dayton and Tulsa in the same bracket. The Badgers sneak through on the free kicks.

Missouri -- Point guard Ricky Clemons, who attended six high schools, played this season just days after a felony charge of choking a woman. At a game against Kansas, Clemons was greeted by a female Jayhawk fan sporting a fake black eye and a sign that said "I love Ricky." And people like the Southern Illinois Salukis in an upset? Puhhhlease.

Alabama -- When it comes to cheating, the Crimson Tide have proved some of the most prolific in the history of college sports. After boosters blatantly paid off recruit Albert Means to come to 'Bama, the football program nearly received the NCAA's version of the death penalty, meaning the storied program that Bear Bryant built would be excommunicated from the gridiron forever. Clearly, they're in the Sweet 16.

Arizona -- Jerry Tarkanian nicknamed Arizona head coach Lute Olson "Midnight Lute" for his penchant for stealing recruits at the last minute. When Tark patronizes your recruiting tactics, they should just crown you national champs. It's a tough call. Cincy will give them a hard time in the second round, especially after one of former players allegedly tied up his roommate and burned him with lit cigarettes last year. That's huge, too.

Notre Dame -- In another particularly weak cheating bracket, Notre Dame carries through by robbing us of our intelligence one painful half at a time. They did this by firing Digger Phelps and forcing us to have to listen to him prognosticate endlessly as if he invented coaching. Plus, they have the most annoying, bandwagon-happy fans in all of college sports. If you're not an alum, take of the fucking jacket, okay? I recommend probation on principal.

Memphis -- Ahhhh, it's so nice to have John Calipari back in the Tournament. The same coach who tainted my idyllic youth as a UMass fan with his antics is finally back in the Big Dance. His problems at UMass, from microscopic GPAs to agents to God knows what else are enough to carry him to the Sweet 16. Bonus points for 4,760 things coming up on Google after typing in "Memphis basketball and suspension."

Duke -- Grant Hill. Trajan Langdon. Jay Williams. Christian Laettner. What do these players have in common? They were textbook examples of fantastic college players and all that is great about a squeaky-clean by-the-book NCAA program. Maybe that explains why all of them promptly went to the NBA and turned into Joe Kleine. Think about it. Who's worst in the first round: Duke seniors or the Minnesota Timberwolves?

LSU -- Fresh off probation, the Tigers will dominate this bracket, edging past a Purdue team that's, well, fresh off probation. It's almost like a box cutter fight over a pack of smokes in juvy, ain't it? When in doubt, always choose the SEC.

UConn -- We'd love to have San Diego sneak in here. And center Jason Keep's driving record while at Oklahoma State leads me to believe Billy Joel sponsored the kid's learning permit. But Husky Ben Gordon's assault arrest puts UConn ahead. Too bad they're not in the same bracket as Missouri, which means we won't see a punch-up between Gordon and Clemons unless they both win a lot of games.

Maryland -- The NCAA snooped all around freshman Travis Garrison but never delivered the goods. Don't worry. The Terps will advance thanks to a vintage parking ticket scandal, in which a former player reportedly had $8,000 in parking tickets in the mid-90's and was never forced to pay. How do you do that? Park in two handicapped spaces every day for four years?

Colorado -- Everyone loves an underdog. Tough to pick against Florida, an SEC stalwart. But the Colorado football program's recruit visits included female escorts and a deluge of booze. It's just too good to pass up. These guys made Tailhook look one of those birthday parties at Papa Gino's where the birthday kid makes their own pizza. Truly inspired shenanigans from the Buffs.

North Carolina State -- How did sophomore sensation Julius Hodge end up there again? Oh, right, he bypassed offers from Syracuse and Maryland because wanted to play for State and waste his talents running the Princeton offense. Okaaaay.

Louisville -- In Dan Wetzel's excellent book, Sole Influence, chronicling the crooked sneaker companies, he shows in ridiculously compelling detail how Adidas and Nike sent legions of cronies to fawn over former Louisville big man Marvin Stone as a high schooler. Obviously, the NCAA compliance folks just finished War and Peace, happened upon Wetzel's tome and decided to look into Stone's case four years and one transfer later. That really has nothing against Louisville, but never bet against Rick Pitino in March -- unless he's in the NBA.

Syracuse -- Syracuse went on probation over a decade ago for everything from the local car dealer slipping money into Christmas cards for players to free meals local restaurants. Bonus points are due after former Orangeman DeShaun Williams allegedly punched the girl who played the school mascot in a bar melee this spring. He was found innocent in court, but did the program proud by falling asleep during his trial. Gotta like a team where a lovable stuffed Orange mascot named "Otto" ain't safe.

Auburn -- At 20-11 and finishing a woeful 5-9 over its last 14 games, I was trying to figure out how Auburn got in the NCAA Tournament. Then I remembered they were in the SEC! And then there's the time a few years back, where former college standout Chris Porter got $2,500 to help with his loans -- from his agent. Sounds like sweet 16 to me.

 

 
 

*BT*

For the past seven years, Pete Thamel has lived, breathed, ate and shit nothing but college basketball for publications like ESPN: The Magazine. Currently, he is in Bartlesville, OK, writing a book about NAIA basketball.