Sunday, March 30, 2008

And Then There Were 4...

Two weeks later, 65 teams have been trimmed to a final 4. UCLA, North Carolina, Memphis, and Kansas represent the last men standing atop a heap of dreamers. These fabulous four offer something surprising, as well as something not so surprising.

It’s not surprising to have four number 1 seeds remaining, if you consider they earned those seedings with regular season play and a determination that they were the best in the field. If anything, this should often be the norm. But it’s surprising that all 4 did survive, since history shows this as the first time all top seeds have ever advanced to the final four. The pattern has always been at least one of those seeds stumbling somewhere along the way. Some may have struggled to get there, but all managed to make a historic arrival in 2008.

East Region: Before a single game was played, many viewed the East as the toughest bracket, yet the Tar Heels plowed through the majority of it like a bulldozer clearing smaller obstacles from the path. Even if the drubbing of their first victim, Mount Saint Mary’s, didn’t impress you, a nearly identical beating of Arkansas had to make you somewhat of a believer. Then came all the talk about Washington State’s stingy defense, and if you ask the Heels, after whipping the Cougars 68-47, they would probably say... “What D”? Finally, they found an opponent slightly worthy, as the Louisville Cardinals tried to make it a game, after being run out of the gym in the first half. The comeback was cut short, and North Carolina cut down the nets.

South Region: Maybe we should call this one the “disrespected” region. No one wanted to give Memphis any credit for their play, and people weren’t just waiting for the South’s top seed to fall, but they were expecting it. Those doubters nearly received their satisfaction, as the Mississippi State Bulldogs pushed Memphis to the limit, before falling just short. Memphis responded to that nail biter with routs of Michigan State and Texas. As much as people expected Memphis to do light packing for a short tournament trip, the Tigers packed their scissors, and used them to bring down the Southern nets.

West Region: This was said to be the easiest bracket, but I’m sure the Bruins would tell you different. UCLA made quick work of Mississippi Valley State, holding them to just 29 total points in that first round game. But the Bruins struggled with Texas A&M, escaping again on a questionable “no call”, and had their hands full with Western Kentucky’s Cinderella dreams. They managed to momentarily silence the critics with an overpowering victory to dump Xavier, but still won’t be viewed as the final four favorite, despite making their third consecutive appearance in the field.

Midwest Region: This region was stacked with some big names, but highlighted by a little name that refused to go away. The Davidson Wildcats were finally silenced by the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks, but it wasn’t easy. In fact, I feel that Davidson began to panic, with the game winding down under 5 minutes. They were still in striking distance, but Curry forced some bad shots, and the Wildcats appeared to surrender to the logic of living or dying behind the arc. The last possession of the game gave proof, as Davidson never attempted to set up a tying drive to the paint, and desperately tried to get off a game winning 3.

The Jayhawks walked easily through the tournament, until they ran into the feisty Davidson team, but survived to complete the final four puzzle.

Now What?

Can you pick the best team of the 4 remaining? I’d say all are evenly matched, and we’re headed towards a spectacular weekend in San Antonio. Early in the season, I said Memphis was the best team in the country. But by the end of the regular season, I became one of the doubters, probably caught up in the media bashing of a team coming from a non power conference. I chose UCLA in all my bracket pools, but honestly, any of the remaining teams can win this thing.

I think the Networks would love to see a UCLA versus North Carolina final. It’s perfect. It gives you Love vs. Hansbrough. Williams vs. Howland. It gives you old school royalty vs. the modern day warriors. It’s East vs. West, Lawson vs. Collinson, and the team with the most NCAA basketball championships vs. the team with the most NCAA final four appearances. it’s umm…baby blue vs. baby blue. Who could ask for more?

A final note: In the past two seasons, the Big East has sent 14 teams to the NCAA tournament (8 this season), and only one has made the final 4 (Georgetown '07).

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