With gas prices pushing $4 a gallon, a state-by-state battle continuing for the Republican presidential nomination, an economy struggling to bring prosperity and jobs back to the average American and a mission in Afghanistan that has been permanently damaged by the destruction of numerous copies of the Koran and a U.S. soldier who lost his grip and went on a murderous rampage killing 16 innocent civilians, including children, it's difficult to focus on the comparatively meaningless issues of normal life ... but our sanity demands it.

While we cannot turn our back on these never-ending dilemmas that have the potential to severely damage our nation and the world, at least we have the diversion, if only for a few short weeks, of the annual NCAA Division I basketball tournament (both men's and women's).

The annual hoop hysteria is arguably this nation's most popular sporting "event" because everyone, from grandma to old, weird Uncle Orville, can revel in the possibility of a true "Cinderella" story. Nothing's more exciting than following and rooting for an unknown, unpublicized, underrated underdog that shocks the basketball world by knocking off the perennial powerhouses. Can you say Texas Western (1966)?

And unlike football where you need 30-40 outstanding athletes to compete against the best, basketball only requires five or six cagers to get the job done. Perhaps more than any other sport, basketball is the epitome of a team game where a squad with obviously less talent can beat a superior opponent because they play as a team rather than as a group of selfish individuals.

In addition, basketball is so much easier for the average schmuck (including myself) to understand. If you put a round ball through a round hoop, you get points. If you put it through more than the competition, you win. Simple. It's not like the gridiron where to truly appreciate the game one has to understand blitzes, zone coverage, nickel backs, the difference between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense, a wildcat offense and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

Basketball is also so much less expensive for a school district to support. Unlike the plethora of equipment required to put a football team on the field or a hockey team on the ice, even the tiniest communities can afford to buy a few basketballs and nail a steel hoop onto a wall or post. It's debatably the most American of all sports, and fans have been piling into their vehicles and following the local team's school bus to the next game for over a century. From the cornfields of Iowa to the mountains of Appalachia, the great tradition of basketball continues and the unbridled enthusiasm - aka hysteria - is as strong now as it's ever been.

By the time you read this -- unless you purchase the paper at a newsstand Wednesday evening -- the tournament will already have commenced, but here are a few observations from an old hoops junky that may help you fill out your bracket. Or not.

• It's never happened before, but I'm going way out on a limb and declaring this will be the first time in history a No. 16 seed upsets a No. 1. What's that you say? I've finally lost it for real? You're probably right, but the ever-increasing parity of the game dictates it's only a matter of time before the inevitable occurs. How about UNC Asheville over Syracuse?

• Hang onto your hats because it's going to be a bumpy ride. I firmly believe there are anywhere from 25-30 teams that could get hot and win it all. It only requires six wins in a row, and every team in the field has done that at some point during the season. Want my darkhorse? How about Marquette ... or Memphis?

• While all the "experts" talk about how great the Big 10 is, I'm not convinced at all. To be sure, it's a tough league with some fine teams, but none of them - Michigan State and Ohio State included - are "all that." It's an extremely well-balanced conference from top to bottom, but any of the Big 10 NCAA qualifiers can get beat by a hot-shooting upstart. The fact a mediocre Wisconsin team can somehow be a fourth seed is clear testament to the unwarranted "hype" the Big 10 has gotten all year.

• Although I'm a born and bred Midwestern, Big 10 fan, history shows the Atlantic Coast Conference must be respected. North Carolina and Duke will both be difficult to beat, but how about Florida State? The Seminoles defeated both the Blue Devils and Tar Heels twice during the pre-tournament season ... that's TWICE each. Yikes. Talk about impressive.

• Ohio State's Jared Sullinger is the most overrated big man in college basketball. He's a horse, but has a tendency to play "smaller" than his size. He can't score off the dribble and doesn't even possess a pull-up jump shot. Give me Draymond Green from Michigan State anytime.

• Wouldn't be surprised at all if Iowa State knocks off defending champion UConn. ISU's Royce White is a unique player who has it all: size, ball-handling, passing, great hands, a shooter's touch, court vision, rebounding, etc. He's a future NBA star and is ready to display his immense talent on the big stage.

• The Big East? Not this year. SEC? Kentucky obviously. Big 12? Beware Missouri, and Kansas State is a sleeper.

• The women's tournament? That's easy. Brittney Griner and Baylor. No contest. On second thought, don't count the Stanford Cardinal out.



So pack up all your cares and woes and follow the tournament. God knows we need the distraction.