Forecasting the final four

Moving courageously beyond his earlier botched NCAA predictions, our man picks Kansas and Oklahoma.

By King Kaufman

Published March 27, 2002 8:42PM (EST)

They're worrying about Tom Coverdale's ankle in Bloomington. The junior point guard, who reinjured his already dented wheel in Indiana's regional final win over Kent State Saturday, has been seen hobbling around campus on crutches and in an air cast this week, and he's listed as questionable for Saturday's national semifinal game against Oklahoma. Hoosier fans are wondering how their boys can hope to knock off the Sooners without their redheaded heart and soul.

The answer is, they probably can't. That's OK, though, because they probably can't beat Oklahoma with Coverdale either.

Indiana's had a great run, and it's kind of fun to think of the Hoosiers as the plucky underdogs who snuck into the Final Four, considering how many years they spent as overdogs. And that win over Kent State in the Elite Eight round was no gimme. The Golden Flashes were a legitimate Tournament team. Their 10th seed doesn't mean they were no better than the 37th best club in the country. They were in that great bunch of middle teams that make up the majority of the Tournament entrants, and if the selection committee had a different set of prejudices than the ones it does have, Kent State might have been a 5 or 6 seed.

Still, Kent State was essentially a three-man team, and even though Indiana hit the Flashes with a staggering series of haymakers right from the opening bell, the Hoosiers, who are a 5 seed, still had to struggle a bit to win. Oklahoma, like the other remaining teams, Kansas and Maryland, who play each other in the nightcap Saturday, is much more talented, athletic and deep than Kent State. The Hoosiers were able to hit their first five shots, all three-pointers, and eventually nailed 15 of 19 threes largely because Kent State was packing its defense inside to stop Jared Jeffries, leaving the outside shooters with open looks. Oklahoma can handle Indiana's quick, rangy sophomore and still keep the Hoosiers' gunners from torching the nets the way they did Saturday.

Indiana fans who don't like this forecast should consider that my pick in the other game is necessarily Kansas because the Jayhawks are the only team still alive that I predicted would still be alive at this point. I won't be winning any pools this year, starting with that two-party pool I'm in, the one the other party doesn't even know it's a part of.

After the third round, I had a slight lead on the Sports Illustrated "council of wise guys," who got three teams into the Elite Eight, to my four. But it was fool's gold. All four of my Elite Eight teams were playing each other. I could get no more than two teams into the Final Four. Maryland beat Connecticut, so I only got one in. The wise guys got three in -- Maryland, Oklahoma and Kansas. Since we both picked Kansas to win it all, they've got me. Their dagger's at my throat and the emperor's up there in the stands with his thumb pointed down, a pose usually favored by my readers.

Still, I'd say the wise guys' claim, in the magazine's March 18 edition, that their picks were "surefire" didn't exactly pan out. Sixty games have been played so far, not counting the play-in game, which let's not count. The guys, prior to the Tournament, picked the winning team in 37 of them. Shoot, I don't know what the hell I'm talking about and I picked 33.

Meanwhile, I'm in a couple of other little pools, battling ... myself. I filled out a bracket with the favorite winning every game. Despite the Tournament's reputation as a haven for upsets, that bracket is taking my head and the wise guys' heads and clopping them against each other like Moe dribbling Larry against Curly. Forty-three times in those 60 games so far, the team that was supposed to win a particular game before the Tournament started (based on seedings) did win it. Even if Kansas goes all the way, meaning I'll have picked the national champion, the favorites bracket, with long-since-eliminated Duke as the champ, will have beaten me.

I also filled out a bracket for the women's Tournament. Since I knew just about nothing about this season in women's college basketball, this meant I was pretty much filling out a bracket at random. In that bracket, I've picked 41 winners in 60 games, and two of my Final Four teams made it to the semifinals. When I mentioned all of this earlier in the Tournament and said I wasn't sure what it all meant, a reader wrote in to say that what it meant was that the women's Tournament has a lot fewer upsets, which isn't quite true. The pre-Tournament favorite has won 46 of the 60 games, only three more than on the men's side. The women's Final Four, by the way: UConn vs. Tennessee and Oklahoma vs. Duke. Everyone's a No. 1 seed except Tennessee, a 2. Connecticut's trying for an undefeated season.

With the exception of Indiana winning any games this weekend, there are no upsets left in the men's Tournament. Oklahoma, Kansas and Maryland can line up against each other every other day from now till Christmas and there might not be much difference in the standings by the end of it all. I like Kansas, with big men Drew Gooden and Nick Collison and its up-tempo style and depth. You might like Maryland, with Juan Dixon and his backcourt mate Steve Blake and all those beefy forwards. Or Oklahoma, with its stifling defense and its slip of a guard Hollis Price, who's dynamite, but who's only one of four real scoring threats.

Watching them play each other over and over from now till Christmas sounds pretty good, actually, but it's the NBA that just plays on and on and on.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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