Most wonderful time of year set to tip off

My apologies to the late Andy Williams, but tonight, the official start of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, is the most wonderful time of the year.

Sort of.

Play-in games pairing programs we know little to nothing about in that mecca of hoop happenings — Dayton, Ohio — is merely the unsatisfying pack of saltines to devour before the four-course meal arrives later this week.

But we’ll watch, at least for a while, before channel surfing and locating a more enticing option, like the Lifetime Channel’s tribute to Phyllis Diller.

Once the tournament’s version of training wheels are removed and the flurry of Thursday-Friday games arrive, anticipate the customary phantom illnesses and last-minute personal leave day requests in the workplace.

Bill from accounting, the same Bill from accounting who hasn’t missed a day of work in four years and meticulously packs his own lunch, believes he might have been food-poisoned.

Oh, but he’ll be back in the office bright and early Monday.

A few observations regarding this year’s field of 64 (ugh, 68) teams:

n Even with Indiana University relegated to the NIT for only the third time in 33 years, the basketball fans of this state can cheer for any of three legitimate Sweet 16 candidates in Butler, Purdue and Notre Dame.

n The Bulldogs and Irish have better postseason résumés and will be extremely difficult outs because of the style they play at both ends of the floor.

n Purdue, historically March’s version of a matchstick house in a tropical storm, will go as deep into March as juniors Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias take them. Their play determines whether the Boilers begin erasing an unflattering postseason reputation or merely add to it. Big Ten Player of the Year lock Caleb Swanigan, who seemingly can do it all, can’t do it all in March. This is where Edwards and Mathias factor in.

n The domed stadium craze of the 1990s and 2000s appears to be over, with traditional basketball venues hosting all games leading up to the Final Four starting April 1 in Glendale, Arizona. This includes Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, a first- and second-round host for the first time.

n Arizona becomes the 22nd state to host a men’s Final Four. Missouri, which hasn’t hosted one since Kansas City rolled out the welcome mat in 1988, still leads comfortably over Texas for the most Final Fours, 14-8. Indiana is third with seven but chalks up No. 8 in 2021. Notable one-and-dones include New Mexico (1983, N.C. State coach Jim Valvano running around on the floor), Utah (1979, Magic vs. Bird) and Oregon (1965, the second of former UCLA coach John Wooden’s 10 titles).

n Having studied (for about three minutes) the brackets, my Final Four picks are as follows: Duke, Louisville, UCLA and Arizona. Cutting down the nets the night of April 3 will be … drumroll, please … the Blue Devils.

Let the games begin.

Mike Beas is a sportswriter for the Franklin Daily Journal, a sister paper of the Tribune. Send comments to [email protected].