Friday, March 30, 2007

Story of this Final Four: No underdogs allowed


— There won't be any warm and fuzzy scenes like when Jim Valvano sprinted across the court looking for somebody to hug. You won't see any blubbering meltdowns a la Rollie Massimino, either.

And the next George Mason? That dream got squashed two weeks ago.

Nope, this year's Final Four is all about the power conferences. There may as well be a sign: "No Underdogs Allowed."

"What we did last year as a group was pretty amazing," George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. "This year it's what the high-major teams have been able to do, which is survive some incredible scares and advance.

"I just think what makes March Madness so special is its unpredictability."

Not this season. A year after George Mason delighted the country with its improbable run to the Final Four and the mid-majors elevated themselves with eight of the 34 at-large bids, the power has shifted back to, well, the powers.

For the first time since 1993 - and only the second time since the NCAA began seeding the field in 1979 - a 2 is the "highest" seed in the Final Four. Each game Friday night features a No. 1 vs. a No. 2 - Florida vs. UCLA and Ohio State vs. Georgetown.

Some underdogs, those Bruins and Hoyas. UCLA returns almost the entire team that lost to Florida in the title game last year and was ranked No. 1 for six weeks this season. Georgetown has one of the biggest guys in college basketball and has won 19 of its last 20.

"Last year, everyone was talking about the mid-majors. This year, everyone's excited about four of the top teams in the country - who were in probably everybody's mind at the beginning of the year," Larranaga said.

"It's a battle of Goliaths. There is no David."

That takes some of the fun out of it. Part of the tournament's charm is that there always seems to be some high seed that knocks off a team it should have no business beating - Valparaiso stunning Mississippi on Bryce Drew's shot from just across the half-court line in 1998. Princeton beating defending champ UCLA in 1996.

Valvano's N.C. State was hardly a mid-major, being from the ACC. But the Wolfpack were a sixth-seed in 1983, and they beat two No. 2 seeds and two No. 1s, including Houston and the Phi Slama Jama boys in the championship game.

Villanova wasn't an unknown, either, in 1985, coming out of the Big East. But the Wildcats were a lowly eighth seed when they upset Patrick Ewing and mighty Georgetown.

Last year, the mid-majors ran amok. Besides George Mason, Bradley, Gonzaga and Wichita State all made the round of 16.

"The parity in college basketball is just so close now," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "Anybody can beat anybody on a given day. I mean, I really believe that we can beat anybody on a given day. I still believe we can be beaten by anybody on a given day."

That the Final Four wound up this way isn't really a surprise, though. While the regular season was a model of equality - a record-tying 48 schools were ranked at some point - the big schools have dominated the NCAA Tournament.

It started with the selection committee, which gave the mid-majors two fewer at-large bids than it had last year. While that made for howling, it looks as if the committee got it right.

Sure, teeny Winthrop knocked off Notre Dame. But that was in the first round, and the 11th-seeded Eagles were headed back to Rock Hill, S.C., by the time the first weekend was over. Winthrop wasn't exactly a typical underdog, either, having been ranked the final two weeks of the season.

Only one other double-digit seed won its first-round game, and neither Winthrop nor Virginia Commonwealth was around after the first weekend. It's the first time since 1995 that no double-digit seeds advanced to at least the third round.


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