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It’s mid-March and for basketball fans it’s Christmas come early.

Yesterday was selection Sunday. The day when the NCAA announces the brackets for who will be competing against each other in the tournament. When I wrote this column, I had no idea what the matchups were. The selection still had not taken place. Yet, the excitement of the day and knowing that the tournament was just about to start was an undeniable feeling.

I began really watching basketball, and other sports outside of baseball for that matter, just before I reached my teens. At the time I was living in Connecticut. My uncle was a sports enthusiast, but he particularly loved basketball. He had played it, he coached it, and, usually, when I visited it was on in the background even if no one was really watching the game. If it wasn’t the NBA, then it was college and often times, given the choice between the two, my uncle would typically choose college.

My uncle had graduated from UConn and living in Connecticut the games were on frequently. I consequently began to watch not only more basketball but UConn basketball. The Huskies became my de facto team for both the men’s and women’s programs. I know, I know. For some people out there who follow college basketball, rooting for the UConn women is like rooting for the “evil empire” (the New York Yankees), but I can’t help it. I love the way they play the game. Geno Auriemma built a program based on fundamental basketball with great ball movement that, when executed well, is beautiful to watch. It is a style similar to the one played by almost any Greg Popovich-led Spurs team and the Golden State Warriors in the NBA, both of whom I have also enjoyed watching over the years.

When I moved back to Vermont, I also began to root for UVM and the Catamounts. At the time, UVM was not a solid basketball program. They never made the tournament. I remember the first year I saw that the men’s team had made the tournament in 2003. I was shocked and I was excited. At the time they were led by junior forward Taylor Coppenrath. I made it a point to watch that game. UVM made the tournament the next two years also. They have made the tournament the past two years, which brings their count up to nine appearances. This year, it is the first time that both the men’s team and the women’s team have made the tournament at the same time since 2010 and, again, I will make it a point to watch both of those games and any more should they advance.

One of the things I love about watching the tournament is the “First Four” and the first two rounds. Every year I fill out a bracket and I follow the games to see how close I came in my picks. The exciting thing about the first round or two is the upsets. There are always some. It’s even more interesting when a team is able to advance by knocking off a big school, like UVM did in the first round in 2005 by defeating Syracuse. Even though they may bust my bracket, it’s fun to see, and some of them went on to win more than one game in the tournament. I think of teams in the men’s tournament like Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 who, as the No. 15 seed, defeated No. 2 Georgetown and then No. 7 San Diego State to advance to the Sweet 16. In 2018 there was Loyola Chicago, a No. 11 seed which defeated Miami, Tennessee, Nevada, and Kansas State to advance to the Final Four.

When it comes time to pick a bracket, there are typically schools and programs that have proven themselves to always be in the mix. In the men’s tournament, teams like Duke under Mike Krzyzewski, Kentucky under John Calipari, and Syracuse under Jim Boeheim were always strong programs, to say nothing of schools like North Carolina under Roy Williams and Kansas under Bill Self that have also had a lot of success over the years.

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In the women’s tournament, there have been programs that have been stalwarts also. UConn has been one of those teams for decades now. Stanford under Tara VanDerveer, who won the tournament two years ago, has provided continued success, as has Baylor in recent years under Kim Mulkey. In the past, Tennessee under Pat Summit, who helped elevate women’s basketball, was always a contender as well.

The landscape has changed recently, though. Williams retired two years ago. Krzyzewski retired last season after No. 9 Duke lost to North Carolina in the Final Four. This year, the Blue Devils were ranked No. 21 under first year head coach Jon Scheyer, and the question remains whether Duke will continue to be the powerhouse that it once was. Boeheim announced his retirement after 47 years at Syracuse last week, and it will remain to be seen whether the Orange will have the same success under Adrian Autry, who will take the reins next year.

On the women’s side, UConn has not been the same powerhouse they were years ago. I would still never count the Huskies out and expect them to make a deep run. However, coming into this year’s tournament they are ranked No. 7, partly due to the absence of one of the elite players in the game in Paige Bueckers, who was injured before the start of the season.

Mulkey left Baylor for Louisiana State University last year. This year, LSU is ranked No. 9 and Baylor is not even in the top 25.

Stanford continues to have a solid program, ranked No. 5 going into this year’s tournament with a 28-5 record.

The real story on the women’s side though is the South Carolina Gamecocks. The team improved almost every year since Dawn Staley took over in 2008. Last year, they won the championship and had a regular season record of 35-2 behind the dominant play of Aliyah Boston, who collected hardware last year like it was her job, which included NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, Naismith College Player of the Year, the John R. Wooden Award, and the AP Women’s Player of the Year. This year, the Gamecocks are 32-0 and Boston, at this point, has been named by “The Athletic” as a First Team All-American. The team seems poised to repeat. Then again, that’s why they play games because you never know when an upset might happen.

The First Four begins on Tuesday for the men and Wednesday for the women. The first round of the tournament begins on Thursday for the men and Friday for the women and when it does, I will be doing what I have done for many years, watching as much of the tournament as possible, keeping track of my brackets, rooting for UConn and UVM, and watching the incredible play by all the other teams in between hoping to see some upsets.

Brandon Canevari is a sports editor and reporter for the Brattleboro Reformer and Vermont News & Media.