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Arch leaning towards Madness

Mark Woods

March Madness is all about the numbers. 65 teams. 19 days. 14 venues. Millions wagered on office sweepstakes. And in the middle of the extensive hubris, one young Scot, hoping to help cut down the nets in Atlanta on April Fool's Day when America's college basketball champions
are ceremonially crowned.

It may pass un-noticed on this side of the Atlantic. Yet the NCAA Tournament comes only second to the Super Bowl in America's sporting panorama, hype and attention supplied in equal measure. For the young men on whom the spotlight will incessantly burn, there will be no respite. Robert Archibald however cannot wait for the attention. 

A centre for the much-fancied University of Illinois, Paisley-born Archibald will shortly graduate from the student ranks and head for the rough and tumble of the professional game. 

The travails of cramming study around a schedule of practices and twice-weekly matches across the United States will soon come to a close. From here on in for Illinois, it's do or die each night. Win or go home. For their trans-Atlantic import, the fate is more terminal. 

Lose, and walk off court as an amateur for the final time.

"Four years of playing basketball at such a high level with the opportunity to travel has been unbelievable," admits Archibald, whose father Bobby was a pivotal figure in the lauded Murray International side of the eighties. 

"It was tough last week walking out on our court at Illinois for the last time. It was a special feeling and so many memories went flying through my head. I've become such close friends with my team-mates. We all came from different places and backgrounds but it feels like we all grew up together during our time here."

There will be little time to look back during the next three weeks. From the much-anticipated announcement of the Tournament seedings, until the finish, little else will grab the attention. 

"Over here, it's such a major event," Archibald explains. "It's like Cup final weekend back home. There's so much build-up to it and a lot of exciting games. You're trying to finish up your season the right way so teams are out there fighting for their lives."

One of three Brits still in action - former Westminster Warriors guard Germayne Forbes at sixth seed and perennial small-school underdog Gonzaga and Davidson's Chris Pearson are the others - there will be no bigger test at this level.

Having reached the last eight last year, Illinois will hope to go at least one stage better this term. 

"It was tough because we had a team which was capable of reaching the Final Four or maybe even further. To come so close wets your appetite but also hurts. We felt like we let a
great chance slip by. Now I have one more shot left to help make it happen."

Archibald, who averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds this season, has hit peak form at the right time, exceeding several of his personal statistical plateaus during the past month. 

"I've developed more confidence, knowing that I'm able to do things that maybe I never
realised I could do," he states. 

So too his team which has rebounded from a mid-season trough to emerge as a genuine contender, winning nine straight games before losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten semifinals. 

"We had struggled for a while. But to come back to win our Conference and have a lot of momentum going into the tournament is a good feeling. I feel good about our chances."

Once graduation is past, Archibald's sights will turn towards the paid ranks, and potentially, the lucrative pastures of the NBA. And how he performs under the most intensive of scrutiny will weigh heavily on his chances of earning a multi-million dollar contract. 

"Coach (Bill) Self has told me there is some interest from the NBA but a lot of that will be determined on how I play in the post-season and at camps. Right now, it's just a foot in the door. 

"Obviously first, I'm trying to concentrate on finishing up my career at Illinois with a bang. I'll wait until that's done before I make any decisions on my future."

Sanity will be restored come April 1. Yet Archibald is no fool. There is no wiser way to tout for a well-paid job than to be on the one team left standing when everyone else's number has come dolefully up.

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