During a recent visit to the dentist, Brad Crist and his dental practitioner discussed the most timely topic in sports: the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Crist mentioned that he’s a 1999 graduate of Brigham Young University, and his dentist immediately commented on the prowess of Jimmer Fredette, BYU’s smooth-shooting guard.

Then the practitioner added an aside. “I’m an Ohio State graduate, and we’re on the other side of the bracket,” he told Crist. “Maybe we’ll see you in the title game.”

March Madness, the better-known moniker for the 72-year-old NCAA men’s basketball tournament, is a time of the year when college allegiances are in full bloom and when money and ink-stained brackets are surreptitiously exchanged in offices across the country. The tournament’s round of 16 teams — affectionately known as the “Sweet 16” — opens tonight with four games.

While the University of Maine has never qualified for the NCAA tournament, you don’t have to look too far for college basketball fans in Maine who have allegiances to schools that still have a chance to reach the Final Four. Some grew up in a household where a parent or a sibling is a fan of a certain program. Others, like Crist, are alumni who have relocated or returned to Maine, bringing their school allegiances and some of their traditions.

Crist, a native of Bountiful, Utah, remembers BYU’s 1996 season, when the Cougars won one game and went 0-16 in the Western Athletic Conference.

“Our team was terrible,” said Crist, a North Yarmouth resident who is the general manager of Savage Safe Handling in Auburn. “But Dave Rose, the head coach, has done a great job of rebuilding the program. The addition of Jimmer has helped things, and it’s brought some excitement to the program that I haven’t seen since the 1980s.”

Some teams become beloved over the course of the three-week tournament, such as George Mason in 2006. Other teams are polarizing forces.

“People hate Duke,” said Jonathan Culley, a Falmouth native and a Duke graduate. “The more success we have, the more animosity there is. Not to sound smug, but people hate Duke because in a way, they want to be a part of it. People dislike Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) and Duke has had some polarizing figures, like Christian Laettner or J.J. Redick. There’s got to be a villain and Duke seems to play the role.”

In his freshman dorm in Durham, N.C., Culley watched as Laettner spun around and shot from inside the arc after taking a length-of-the-court inbounds pass from Grant Hill. Laettner’s shot, one of ESPN’s top 100 moments in sports, sent Duke to the 1992 Final Four.

“I’ll never forget the feeling,” Culley said. “You can’t watch the tournament without seeing the replay. I still get goose bumps.”

Culley, a real estate developer, got the same feeling when he watched Duke defeat Butler for the national title last spring.

“Last year, it was unexpected,” Culley said. “Butler was a great story, and if they were playing any other team in the country, I would have rooted for them passionately.”

Butler faces Wisconsin tonight in the Sweet 16, and Diana Prescott believes she’s one of the few Butler fans living in Maine. Prescott is a 1983 Butler graduate and a clinical psychologist in Hampden. Her father, Dallas Etchison, played at Butler in the early 1950s.

Prescott explained that basketball is a cultural staple in Indiana, where Butler is located. Yet while Prescott was a member of the Butler marching band, there were nights when there would be more members of the woodwinds section than the student section at games.

“The rivalry in Indiana was IU-Purdue,” Prescott said. “You went to Butler, but you were either an IU fan or a Purdue fan. We weren’t good at football or basketball. But now, I’ve gone back the last 10 years for homecoming, and it’s amazing to watch it because you really see what the (basketball) program has become.”

School allegiances don’t always translate to fidelity, though, when it comes to picking a tournament bracket. Crist admitted he picked Gonzaga to upset BYU in the second round and cited BYU’s historical struggles in the tournament. The Cougars face Florida tonight in their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1981, when Danny Ainge led BYU to within one win of the Final Four.

Still, maybe this is BYU’s year. Or maybe it’s Butler’s year. It might even be Duke’s year — yet again.

Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be reached at 791-6415 or at:

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