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There's no belittling basketball, as 'Cuse will attest It's not the brackets and seeds that touch your heart, but the people, the stories

I've yet to peruse the brackets in my typically incisive fashion - that comes later in the week - but I can safely offer one prediction for the upcoming NCAA Tournament: You won't hear any of the assistant coaches referring to opposing players as "overrated."

Surely, the coaches learned their lesson after watching Syracuse make one of the most improbable runs in Big East Tournament history, winning four games to jump all the way from the NCAA bubble to a No. 5 seed in the Big Dance.

The most compelling moment of championship week didn't occur on a basketball floor but on the interview podium, where Jim Boeheim launched into an expletive-filled rant after his Orange beat Cincinnati in the first round on a last-second shot by Gerry McNamara.

Boeheim lambasted the Syracuse media for having the temerity to publish a poll in which McNamara, his senior point guard, was voted the most overrated player in the Big East - with a couple of anonymous quotes from league assistants thrown in for emphasis.

McNamara responded by turning Madison Square Garden into his personal proving ground, leading 'Cuse to the tourney title and earning MVP honors. Boeheim called it the most fulfilling four days of his coaching career, which is high praise from a man who won the NCAA title in 2003 and made it to two other national final games.

Wednesday's tirade was not Boeheim's finest moment. The university chancellor upbraided him for using profanity. So did his wife. But give the sly old dog credit. Boeheim's outburst lit a fire under his team and inspired Mc- Namara to a remarkable performance.

Of course, McNamara is overrated by one standard: He's not a serious NBA prospect. He is too slow and too small to be a viable player at "the next level."

McNamara isn't a great pro prospect; he's a great college player. One of the charms of the college game is that lesser athletes can still be major figures. You can be a star without having the raw skills necessary to survive in the NBA.

That's why it's good to see McNamara in the tournament again. Too many of the top players leave early nowadays. I have no problem with kids who go for the money. But it makes it harder for the NCAA Tournament to retain recognizable stars, guys who engage your interest from one season to the next.

McNamara burst on the scene as a freshman in 2003. He hit six three-pointers in the first half of Syracuse's win over Kansas in the NCAA title game. Three years later, he's still here. He didn't leave after one year, like his teammate, Carmelo Anthony. He's still at it, still hoisting threes and zipping no-look passes to his teammates.

Despite the big money and the big-conference bias, there's still an innocence about the NCAA Tournament. It's not the brackets and seeds that touch your heart, but the people, the stories. It's an obscure coach getting his chance in the limelight. It's watching seniors battle to survive, knowing each game could be their last.

The NCAA tourney is the most compelling three weeks in sports. The drama is more satisfying when the main characters stick around for a while. Can Duke's J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams finally win a title as seniors? That would give coach Mike Krzyzewski his fourth title, joining only John Wooden and Adolph Rupp.

Can West Virginia seniors Kevin Pittsnogle and Mike Gansey make another run at a Final Four under John Beilein? Can Dee Brown get Illinois back in his last year? Will Carl Krauser finally get Pittsburgh into the Final Four?

Some amazing stories are likely to unfold over the next three weeks. Anonymous or otherwise, it'll be hard to find anyone who dismisses the event as overrated.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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