PHILADELPHIA -- By now, you have come to know the scene by heart. Doesn't matter. It never gets old:
The scoreboard clock marks the time remaining in scarlet fractions. Let's make it, oh, 3.8 seconds to play.
The score is . . . well, one team has one point more than the other.
On one bench, sweaty scholars encircle a manic depressive who has sweated clean through his $800 suit and is shrieking: "Don't foul!"
On the other bench, another poor deranged soul whose equally expensive wardrobe is in tatters is screaming: "Foul!"
And then it will all come down on the bony shoulders of some 19-year-old hyperventilator in shiny singlet and trunks baggy enough for an elephant.
The kid will do something impossibly heroic.
And all everyone else can do is watch. Frozen.
One of the coaches will win, thereby assuring renewal of his shoe contract and full enrollment for his summer camp.
The other will lose and sometime before dawn breaks on a sleepless night will morosely reflect that he could have picked a less draining profession. Mob informer comes to mind.
One team survives; another is eliminated. One hotel reservation is canceled; another is extended.
One more bracket is filled out on the office pool master sheet.
You can go see "Hamlet" a dozen times, and the prince always ends up dead.
You can go see the Mona Lisa every year, and that smile never changes.
You can read "Moby Dick" over and over, and the whale still kills Ahab. Every time.
But you go to the stadium, to the arena, to the ballpark, and you never know, in advance, how it's going to end. Which, of course, is precisely why we go.
And of all the sporting events we have devised, none is quite so deliciously unpredictable, such consistently riveting theater, as the three weeks of exquisite lunacy required to determine which of our academic citadels employs the best scholar-jammers.
The NCAA may have its problems, but it sure does know how to put on a hoops tournament.
There is a strong suspicion that the Final Four, and all that leads up to it, has now surpassed the World Series, the Super Bowl, all our other sporting diversions.
Probably because in it, the whole human condition is exposed: Soul-shriveling despair and uncontainable joy. Passion and pathos. Greed. Unbearable suspense. The magnificent resiliency of the human spirit. Pettiness and grace. Meanness and dignity.
And the best thing, none of it seems manufactured.
Oh, it's bought and paid for, all right. By television. And treated like a mistress. And there is the undeniable malignancy of money and pressure staining it.
But it still has a freshness, an unspoiled feel to it, if you are willing to look past the high stakes.
The format helps the unpredictability. No best-of-seven here. One night when the better team is off just a tick, one night when the team with no chance plays better than it knows how . . .
The first warning shot has been fired already: On Sunday, Purdue toppled Indiana even as the tournament brackets were being drawn up. See? No one is safe. It cost the Hoosiers a No. 1 seed. It was a reminder of what is soon to come.
The committee anointed Duke, UCLA, Kansas and Ohio State with the top rankings. The committee did them no favors. One or two or three of those No. 1 seeds won't make it to the Final Four.
That's the best thing about this tournament. Form hardly ever holds.
The committee demonstrated that it has a sense of humor. A perverted one. It rewarded Syracuse with Princeton.
The 'Cuse somehow stumbles through the Big East tournament gantlet, three electric paddle games in a row, and then is served to the team no one wants to play.
The committee also showed a wicked appreciation of the combustible by arranging it so that Indiana and LSU could meet in the second round. Bob Knight dueling Dale Brown, telephones at 20 paces.
It is Duke's title to lose.
Has been since the season began.
The Dookies are experienced, swift, smart, well-coached, deep enough. They have all that is required. They look worthy enough. They look like repeaters.
Except . . . well, except that in this game Hamlet sometimes lives and the Mona Lisa sometimes frowns and Ahab sometimes slips away from Moby Dick.
That's why, sometimes, it's nice not to know the ending.