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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Great Article From SI.com's Stewart Mandel

Hoops heaven
Tournament, historic Final Four, anything but blah
Posted: Tuesday April 1, 2008


Sportswriters tend to be a pretty jaded bunch, but the guy standing a few feet from me in the Ford Field media room prior to Sunday's Kansas-Davidson game may have taken the cake.

"This tournament's been pretty boring," I overheard him tell a colleague. "I mean, other than Western Kentucky-Drake, Duke-Belmont, maybe one other game ... it's been pretty dull."

Mind you, this writer got to watch Stephen Curry in person for at least two games, but that's another story. His opinion doesn't differ that much from others I've heard before and during the tournament, most notably from Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon, who wrote on March 17: "[This] season was just, well, blah. ... There aren't many great teams, if any."

As you well know by now, this weekend's Final Four will, for the first time in history, feature all four No. 1 seeds. Most seem to regard this as largely a statistical factoid, the type of oddity that will one day become the answer to a trivia question.

How about focusing instead on just how rare a season it is to have not just one or two, but four truly dominant teams?

Memphis, North Carolina, Kansas and UCLA sport a combined record of 143-9. That's a .941 winning percentage. Comb through the record books if you want -- you're not going to find one higher than that. Even in 1999, the last time three No. 1s made it, the field of Duke, Connecticut, Michigan State and Ohio State had a combined mark of .895.

If there's a reason this season, or this tourney, has seemed "boring," it's because these four teams keep blowing everybody out. Of the 16 tourney games they've played so far, only three -- Memphis' 77-74 second-round win over Mississippi State, UCLA's 51-49 second-round win over Texas A&M and Kansas' 59-57 Elite Eight win over Davidson -- have been decided by fewer than 10 points.

The four are so loaded that you could see their superiority coming a long time ago. Last November, the AP and coaches pollsters tabbed a preseason top four of ... North Carolina, UCLA, Memphis and Kansas.

Personally, I have a slightly different standard when it comes to "dull." The 2000 Michigan State-Wisconsin Final Four game (won by the Spartans 53-41) comes to mind. So, too, does the 2002 national-title game between a Maryland squad no one outside the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., metro area remembers and an Indiana team its own fans barely acknowledge existed.

Granted, I'm a little bit on the younger side among those who cover the tourney annually. Many cling to the old days of Bird and Magic, Ewing and Jordan, Laettner and Hurley. Admittedly, when compared to powerhouses from those earlier eras, most modern-day teams do not belong in the same conversation, nor will they ever again. The game has changed too much.

On the eve of this historic Final Four, however, there's never been a better time to stop and appreciate just how far the sport has come in the past five years.

Decades from now, college hoops historians will look back at the late '90s/early '00s as the sport's indisputable low point. High-school players, particularly big men, jumped straight to the NBA at unprecedented levels (the 2001 class included Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler and DeSagana Diop) and few truly great college players stayed in school longer than two years (the top four picks in the 2000 draft -- Elton Brand, Steve Francis, Baron Davis and Lamar Odom -- all fit that category.)

The result: Mostly mediocre teams and unmemorable players.

Three events helped stir college basketball's renaissance: Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony-fueled 2003 title run, the NBA's minimum-age restriction beginning in 2006 and the ever-improving quality of mid-majors.

Think about that ugly, early 2000s period again for a second. Now think about some of the things we've witnessed over the past five years:

• The first back-to-back national champion (Florida in 2006 and '07) in 15 years.

• One of the greatest Cinderella stories (George Mason's '06 Final Four run) in sports history.

• One of the most memorable national-championship games (North Carolina against Illinois in '05) in recent history.

• Three of the greatest freshman seasons in history (Anthony in '03, Kevin Durant in '07 and Michael Beasley in '08), not to mention players such as Greg Oden, Kevin Love and Derrick Rose, who, in a previous era, may never have stepped on a college campus.

• One of the greatest individual performances (Davidson's Curry, this season) in tourney history.

• A slew of bona fide college stars -- UConn's Emeka Okafor, St. Joe's Jameer Nelson, Duke's J.J. Redick, North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough -- who actually played full (or nearly full) careers.

• And now, the most loaded Final Four since those days of Laettner, Hurley, the Fab Five and UNLV.

It's no coincidence that all four dominant teams each comprise many of the elements discussed above.

You've got UCLA, the once-rare "seasoned team" that's managed to keep together a core of key players (Darren Collison, Luc Richad Mbah a Moute, Josh Shipp) for three years while adding the increasingly important one-and-done stud (Love).

You've got North Carolina, led by an old-school, upperclass All-America (Hansbrough) and a couple younger stars (Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson) who have thus far resisted the urge to rush off to the NBA.

You've got Kansas, a team full of former McDonald's All-Americans (Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Darrell Arthur, Sherron Collins) who could have gone elsewhere and averaged 20 points a game but instead have accepted their roles in Bill Self's balanced, defensive-oriented system.

And you've got Memphis, whose coach, John Calipari, has managed to defy the modern trend of short-handed rosters and seven-man rotations, assembling a team so deep that 10 players have scored in double-digits. Adding one of those one-and-dones (Rose) hasn't hurt, either.

For all the hype that surrounds the Final Four, it's traditionally been the championship game that everyone remembers. We remember Keith Smart's jumper, Rumeal Robinson's free throws, Grant Hill's one-handed alley-oop, Chris Webber's timeout, Trajan Langdon's travel, Hakim Warrick's block and Raymond Felton's steal.

In terms of semifinal games, only three immediately jump to mind: Duke-UNLV ('91), Kentucky-UMass ('96) and UConn-Duke ('04). They typically come and go by the time Monday night rolls around.

This year, however, holds the potential for two truly epic semifinal games. North Carolina-Kansas figures to be an up-tempo thriller. Memphis-UCLA has all the makings of a classic slugfest. And who can remember the last time you could legitimately say that any of the four teams might win the whole thing?

Meanwhile, we're guaranteed just the sixth No. 1 vs. No. 1 title game since 1979. The first five -- '82 North Carolina-Georgetown, '93 UNC-Michigan, '99 Connecticut-Duke, '05 UNC-Illinois and '07 Florida-Ohio State -- were decided by an average margin of 4.8 points. That's a pretty good sign.

After the Fantastic Four spent nearly the entire season dominating everybody else, it's unrealistic to think they will do the same to each other. If all goes to plan, here's guessing nobody will soon look back at 2007-08 as "blah."

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