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John Blanchette: Who are you and what have you done with March Madness?

UPDATED: Tue., March 26, 2019

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Who are you and what have you done with March Madness?

And how much are you asking for ransom?

Look, excellence is swell and should be rewarded. Merit? Merit is the cream that makes the coffee taste like something a little better than acrid hot water. Merit rules.

But throw us a little candy here. A couple of M&Ms. A Skittle.

College basketball slogs along for four months of FBI probes and Bill Walton’s Book of the Month Club just for the payoff of March Madness – and March isn’t Mad unless the bracket gets turned askew. Not upside down. Not even sideways. Just with its cap at a Fernando Rodney angle, or with a shirt misbuttoned. That’s all anyone asks.

Instead, we get a Sweet 16 this year that looks as if it was a barracks bunk made up by a fussy PFC.

Four No. 1 seeds. Four No. 2 seeds. Four No. 3s. Two No. 4s and a five. And a lonesome 12 – which is a 12 only because it underachieved for two-thirds of the season in the worst Pac-12 since the peach baskets came down.

The disappointment is palpable, like seeing The Big Lebowski stroll out of a Men’s Wearhouse in a new double-breasted suit.

Sure, Spokane is jazzed that Gonzaga cruised through the first two rounds. All right-thinking people pulled for Tacko Fall to take down Duke, while all along knowing they’d lose interest in an NCAA Tournament without the Zionator.

Favorites are required to fulfill the Final Four order. No one wants to see a Jags-Bucs Super Bowl. Not even Jags and Bucs fans.

But the NCAAs are more about liftoff than landing. Wall-to-wall games on four channels. Schools Charles Barkley has never heard of bouncing haughty Big State U. Buzzer-beaters. The real shining moments. Don’t try to dispute that the soul of the tournament is the first weekend, not the last two.

Go sell crazy someplace else.

What did we get this year?

One lousy buzzer-beater, but only if you count a layup with 1.6 seconds left to win the game in the vicinity of the buzzer.

Just five games decided by a single possession, a historical low.

All the betting favorites won in the round of 32 for the first time since the bracket expansion to 64 teams in 1985. Eleven of those games were decided by 10 or more points – making it 32 of 52 so far – and five by 20 points.

Sorry, folks. This is March Mehness.

No wonder Michigan State coach Tom Izzo going postal on an inattentive freshman became the cause célèbre of the weekend. There wasn’t much else to talk about.

In casting about to assign blame for this plunge into the mundane, it’s tempting to settle on the selection and seeding committee members – except that the theory is, if the bracket goes all chalk like this, they actually nailed it.

Then there are the mid-major heartthrobs. There were a lot of pundits agitating to include more in the field in a year in which bubble teams suffered from a severe case of undistinguished. But then the three mid-major teams that got in with at-large bids went belly-up in the first round. The mids carried on with Buffalo, Murray State, Liberty and Wofford – and all got wiped out in round 2.

You gotta believe, yeah. But you also gotta achieve.

So we’re left with this: This is the Dennis Green bracket.

The first 14 teams in the final AP Top 25 of the season remain alive. Go back to the preseason Top 25, and among the first 16 teams you’ll find 10 – including Oregon, that No. 12 seed – still playing this week.

As the late NFL coach said, “They are who we thought they were.” He just said it with a little more vigor.

And if it doesn’t fix our jones for chaos, a Sweet 16 full of ones, twos and threes holds the promise of sensational games to come. For every Loyola-Chicago that gets to the ball, there are a dozen Cinderellas whose pumpkin gets T-boned the week before. Not this year.

And it means just that much of a gnarlier road for Gonzaga.

The Zags get a rematch on Thursday with the team that knocked them out of the 2018 tournament, Florida State – only this time the Seminoles have a better seed and a better résumé, along with that deep, long, athletic roster. Should the Bulldogs get past FSU, it’ll be Michigan or Texas Tech standing between them and the Final Four – not a No. 11 seed, as was the case in 2017. Xavier was no basketball Weeble, but this year there’s nothing but cream left.

Nothing meh about that.

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