King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

Elegy for an underdog: Thanks, George Mason, we needed that. Plus: UCLA-Florida final. And: Women's semis, soggy baseball.

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UCLA and Florida have their work cut out for them. They need to make Monday night’s NCAA Championship Game exciting or one of the best Tournaments ever will end with a whimper.

As good as the first four rounds were, that’s how bad Saturday’s semifinal games were, unless you’re a fan of UCLA or Florida.

Florida had little trouble ending the Cinderella run of George Mason, whose magic seemed to run out. It wasn’t so much that the Patriots finally met their match, finally found a team good enough to beat them. They just played a lousy game against a good team that played well.

And that was the case in spades in the nightcap, when UCLA pounded LSU. What looked like it should have been a fairly even match was almost never in doubt. UCLA played about as well as a team can play. LSU would just as soon forget the night ever happened.

Let’s stop and consider George Mason for a second. CBS’s cameras caught head coach Jim Larranaga talking to his disconsolate team after the 73-58 loss to the Gators, telling them to appreciate the “magic carpet ride” they’d been on.

I don’t think George Mason got to the Final Four with magic and sorcery and incantation. But there was the definite feeling Saturday that a spell had been broken.

On the game’s very first play, Jai Lewis got the ball underneath and had his layup blocked by Joakim Noah. George Mason ended up scoring on the possession, but that block was an omen. That wasn’t the kind of thing that had been happening in the wins over Michigan Sate, Wichita State, North Carolina and Connecticut. Plays that looked like they would lead to easy buckets had led to easy buckets.

This just wasn’t the Patriots’ night. But there hadn’t been any charms or amulets, love philters or voodoo powders, shrunken skulls, soggy old tea leaves, crystal balls or magic wands in those wins, if I may borrow a list from Red Smith. Just good basketball and flawed, beatable opponents.

But when it ended it ended with a thud, as though someone had taken the spell off. Too bad because George Mason was really something.

Fifteen years ago, when Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson for the heavyweight championship, I wrote that if we could imagine that 42-1 shot beating the unbeatable champ, we could imagine almost anything — even world peace.



I was kidding, mostly. I was also in my 20s and living in Berkeley, so I wasn’t kidding entirely. But I still think there’s something to it. Great runs by underdogs are beautiful things. They really are, to use a word used way too often by people who do what I do for a living, inspirational.

Who knows how many times, over the next 20 or 30 years, someone doing who-knows-what seemingly impossible thing is going to take encouragement from George Mason’s ’06 Tournament drive? Who knows how many times some overachieving underdog will be compared to George Mason and who-knows-how-many of us will think back fondly on those two improbable weekends.

If it weren’t for underdogs like George Mason pulling off upsets like their run to the Final Four, life would be one big Yankees-Devil Rays pennant race.

Actually, life is one long Yankees-Devil Rays pennant race, and the bad news is most of us are Devil Rays. But the good news is sports doesn’t have to be that way. And George Mason provided a reminder of that.

What they didn’t provide is some kind of “proof” that teams from smaller conferences “belong” in the NCAA Tournament, an idea that seems to be flying around.

Didn’t Gonzaga already “prove” that, if it needed proving, which it didn’t? And wouldn’t it have been just as much of a Cinderella story, proving nothing about smaller conferences, if 12th-seed Texas A&M had followed its upset of Syracuse by beating LSU, Duke and Texas to win the Atlanta Regional?

I’ll answer those for you. Yes.

So now it’s Florida and UCLA, a football school and the school that owned college basketball lifetimes ago. You can’t be much more impressive than UCLA was against LSU, taking control in the opening minutes against a very good team and never letting go. On the other hand, UCLA squeezed by Alabama and needed a miracle against Gonzaga just to get to that game.

UCLA surprised me by being quicker and faster than LSU, which before Saturday night I would have said was the most athletic team in the Final Four. The Bruins completely shut down LSU’s talented frontcourt. If they do the same thing against Noah and Al Horford, Florida’s strength, they’ll win the championship.

I don’t want to get caught up in handicapping the last game, because in the last game, I thought LSU would beat UCLA, and it’s pretty much not possible to be more wrong without uttering the words “I think Dan Quayle put it best.” But I’ll take UCLA Monday night.

Lee Humphrey can’t be counted on to rain threes down on UCLA the way he did on GMU. He made six of them, more than twice his season average, and the three of them he made right after halftime were killing blows. The Bruins are excellent perimeter defenders.

They’re also good on the inside. I like Florida’s size and balance, but I think UCLA’s big men, especially Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, can do enough to neutralize Noah and Horford, and Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo give UCLA a slight advantage in the backcourt.

UCLA in regulation, but in a game so close it makes everyone forget how dull the semifinals were.

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Women’s Final Four [PERMALINK]

If Ivory Latta’s body slam of Marissa Coleman in the final seconds of North Carolina’s semifinal loss to Maryland Sunday night had happened in a men’s game, it would have started a brawl.

Latta, playing hurt in a losing effort, was frustrated and she committed a stupid, violent, dangerous act. In the game’s final seconds, hopelessly behind, she reached both arms around Coleman, who had collected a rebound, wrestled her for the ball and, as the referee’s whistle finally sounded, threw her to the floor. Coleman wasn’t hurt and, aside from some scattered boos, there was no real reaction.

If Latta and Coleman were men, we’d still be talking about the fight Latta started, the breakdown in civilized behavior in basketball and whether Latta should be banned for life.

Instead, the Associated Press report of the game described the takedown this way: “Latta also missed a desperation 3-pointer with 21 seconds to go then missed again with 2.8 seconds to play and fouled Marissa Coleman as both players fell to the floor.”

Yeah, players often both fall to the floor when one is performing an atomic drop on the other.

Latta was ineffective after a first-half knee injury, and Maryland wore down the Tar Heels 81-70 in one semifinal. In the other, Duke pounded LSU 64-45, so Tuesday’s Championship Game will be an all-ACC affair.

The pick here, and keep in mind I did better with my women’s bracket than with my men’s, and also that I had North Carolina winning it all, is Duke.

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Baseball’s all-wet opener [PERMALINK]

It’s ridiculous for baseball to keep its season-opening game alive through a three-hour rain delay, which is what happened Sunday night in Chicago. The White Sox and Cleveland Indians were delayed in the fourth inning, then resumed three hours later, after midnight Eastern time, on a wet field in front of a sparse crowd — and, after a little while, in the rain.

The game was in the sixth inning when midnight struck locally in Chicago.

Both the Indians and the White Sox have days off Monday and Thursday. Hey, here’s a crazy thought: This game could have been played on one of those days.

Turning to more important matters, the new fashion in uniform undershirts, first spied during the World Baseball Classic, as far as I know, is a splash of trim color around the elbows. So for the White Sox that means some white on the black sleeve, and for the Indians some red on the dark blue.

I believe the official name for the design is “laundry mishap.”

I’ve always been so ahead of the times. I totally have shirts like that!

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