Originally created 03/31/04

Cream rises to top in Final Four



For a few moments into last Sunday evening, college basketball was headed for only its second Final Four without a No. 1 seed.

Two top dogs, Kentucky and Stanford, didn't survive the first weekend. A third, St. Joseph's, went down courageously in a regional final. The only No. 1 left was Duke, and the Blue Devils trailed Xavier by three with 5 minutes, 31 seconds remaining.

But class prevailed. Duke hung on for a deserved 66-63 triumph over the Musketeers, assuring the selection committee wouldn't look totally clueless this weekend in San Antonio.

The committee doesn't play favorites, but for all the criticism it takes about seeding and the at-large selections, it usually enjoys a final feeling of satisfaction when the better seeded teams advance.

San Antonio will welcome a No. 1 in the Blue Devils, two No. 2s in Oklahoma State and Connecticut and a No. 3 in Georgia Tech.

It may not be the Final Four under your refrigerator magnet, but it's an accurate reflection of the season.

Three of the best four conferences in order were the ACC, Big East and Big 12. The best league gets two and the two others send their best.

In a tournament that's been short on last-moment dramatics, the regional finals filled the gap. After Connecticut's blowout of Alabama, the next three games were exquisite.

John Lucas III shot Oklahoma State into the Final Four, putting his signature on the tournament's best game with a game-winning three-pointer. Kansas rallied from seven down in the final 3 minutes and forced overtime but couldn't overcome Georgia Tech. And Xavier, a No. 7 seed, gave Duke all it wanted.

The closeness of the regional finals, plus the usual round of upsets suggests the pool of teams capable of reaching the Final Four is growing wider. St. Joe's and Xavier easily could have made it. Tenth-seeded Nevada had a chance.

Alabama-Birmingham coach Mike Anderson and Nevada's Trent Johnson now seem destined for bigger jobs, which is always the bitter end for teams making unexpected tournament runs.

We wonder whether Gonzaga, which got the respect it deserved from the selection committee with a No. 2 seed, can only play as an underdog. And with Stanford falling early and the Pacific-10 Conference's dreadful performance, it's hard to imagine a more profound down cycle for West Coast hoops. But once again, the Final Four lineup comes from the power conferences, leagues that generate big football money. Duke and Connecticut, which meet in one semifinal, reside in the top group of a handful of schools that expect to be playing on the final weekend every year.

The Blue Devils won it all three years ago. Connecticut won its first championship five years ago and should be the overall favorite this weekend. The Huskies hardly struggled in their regional.

The matchup is the main attraction and proof that the basketball committee should leave well enough alone. This is the first year the national semifinals were determined on selection Sunday instead of years in advance. The idea was to get the top teams in the final, and the committee pegged Kentucky and Duke.

The Oklahoma State-Georgia Tech game won't get near the attention but should be an excellent game between two of the nation's most resilient teams.

The Cowboys regenerated after losing three starters, plugging in transfers Lucas, Joey Graham and Daniel Bobik, who have performed remarkably.

Georgia Tech withstands any problem. Bad ankle for B.J. Elder? Somebody else steps up. Trail in the second half of all four tournament games? Look who is standing at the end.

In two close games, look for Connecticut and Oklahoma State to prevail. On Monday night, the Huskies should hoist the trophy for the second time.