Ready, set, dance

Usually “March Madness” is a time when college athletes are revered as heroes while battling for the national title.

But as the United States begins its war against Iraq, the Tournament will seem like a waltz compared to the affairs overseas.

“You sit here and think (that) you are going to have a team playing with 15 players and you are going to have cheerleaders and a pep band,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said. “Then you think (that) the men and women that are fighting for us over there are similar ages. It kind of puts a perspective on things.”

As the teams took to the St. Pete Times Forum Thursday to practice a day before they step on the floor for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, every team had to face how they would deal with Operation: Iraqi Freedom.

“It’s a very somber time,” St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said. “Only by the grace of God, the kids are here. Somebody the same age as them aren’t coming home. It’s a life-changing situation. Our job as coaches is to teach during this time.

“This is a people business. We’re in this business of teaching young men to be men.”

The bracket at the Forum begins at 12:25, pitting St. Joseph’s (23-6) against Auburn (20-11).

St. Joseph’s, seeded seventh, is led by The Sporting News midseason All-American, Jameer Nelson.

The 6-foot junior guard averages 19.3 points per game and led the Hawks with 141 assists and 65 steals.

Nelson and backcourt-mate Delonte West carried the Hawks to a No. 27 RPI ranking and a chance to meet Wake Forest (24-5), ranked No. 8 in the country, in the second round should they be able to beat the Tigers.

The Demon Deacons will meet East Tennessee State (20-10) following the Hawks-Tigers game.

This will not be Tampa residents’ first chance to see the Buccaneers this season.

East Tennessee State traveled to the Sun Dome on Dec. 29, losing to South Florida 68-56.

“You’ve got to get into them and take them out of their rhythm,” USF coach Seth Greenberg said. “You have to attack.”

The No. 2-seeded Demon Deacons boast 6-foot-6 forward Josh Howard, who is an All-American candidate and the only player in Division I basketball averaging at least 15 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals and one blocked shot.

“Josh Howard is one of the best players in college basketball today,” East Tennessee State coach Ed DeChellis said. “He can score, drive the ball spot up for threes and (he’s) a great defender.

“The thing I noticed on tape is when things get tough, he gets a big offensive putback or makes a play when Wake Forest really needs it.”

After the conclusion of the two East bracket games, the tide will shift to the West bracket, where Tampa will get to see two more of USF’s opponents this season.

At 7:10, No. 7 seed Michigan State (19-12) will match up against 10th-seeded Colorado (20-11).

“Michigan State has got to get good guard play and especially good point guard play to advance,” said Greenberg, whose team lost 65-56 on Dec. 21 at Michigan State.

The Spartans seem to be peaking at the right time, winning nine of their last 13 games before losing 55-54 to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.

The other No. 2 seed playing at the Forum is University of Florida, which will have a home state advantage.

The Gators (24-7) play the final first-round game of the day against Sam Houston State (23-6).

The No. 10-ranked Gators are seeded No. 2 in what was a surprise to some people.

“I’m a little surprised about Florida getting a two (seed),” Greenberg said. “Duke won the ACC (Tournament) and got a three, and Florida lost in SEC (Tournament) and they’re a two. That’s a surprise. Not that they haven’t had a great year.”

Along with losing in the first round of the conference tournament, the Gators are also familiar with losing in the first round, after dropping an 83-82 overtime game to Creighton during last year’s NCAA Tournament.

In 2001, UF was able to make it past the first round. However, it had to overcome an 11-point deficit for the second largest comeback for the Gators in NCAA Tournament history.

“I’m just excited to play,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “I’m not the type of person that’s going to sit here and harp on what happened, whether it be a year ago or 10 days ago, and I don’t think that past events have any bearing or anything to do with what happens (today). I haven’t really talked to our guys about it at all.

“Anything that happened in the past, I’m not remotely concerned about. I’m just focused on going forward right now.”

To get past Sam Houston State and then possibly MSU, the Gators will need to continue getting quality play from leading scorers Matt Bonner (15.7 points per game), Matt Walsh (12.7) and Anthony Roberson (12.6).

The Gators are a highly skilled team that defeated USF 68-52 in Gainesville Dec. 8 behind 19 points and a season-high four steals by freshman point guard Roberson.

“Florida, on the other hand, has good guard play and is tremendously skilled, but has got to be good in the post to advance,” Greenberg said.

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