Three rounds into the NCAA Tournament it looked like this year's model was going to be the anti-Tournament. There were upsets and exciting finishes here and there, the odd Butler or Central Michigan, but for the most part things were straightening out, going according to form.
All four No. 1 seeds were alive. Only two 2-seeds made the Elite 8, but the two who were beaten, Pitt and Florida, were way overrated. Only one team lower than a third seed, Michigan State, survived.
The Tournament was a triumph of the favorite, a celebration of the powerful. It was all about the race going to the swift, the battle to the strong. To a nation built on the idea of the underdog, of the mailroom clerk-turned-CEO, the 98-pound weakling-turned-babe magnet, the dirt farmer-turned-president, it was disappointing. To a nation mostly hoping for its military, by far the most lethal ever mustered, to win decisively and quickly in a desert overseas, it was strangely comforting. The people who were supposed to win were, mostly, winning.
And then came the weekend. Three of the four No. 1 seeds lost, and two of them didn't just lose, they were rolled. Mugged. On Saturday in the Midwest region, Marquette lured Kentucky into an alley, knocked it down and took its lunch money. If, at the opening tip, the Wildcats wanted a picture of the future, they could imagine a boot stamping on their faces for 40 minutes. The next day in the East, Oklahoma got the same treatment from Syracuse. A whipping. A taking down of names.
Arizona put up more of a fight on Saturday, losing to 2-seed Kansas in an entertaining back-and-forth West region game that saw both teams going on two dominant runs, and then the Jayhawks holding off the Wildcats at the end. Texas, the top seed in the South, waltzed into the Final Four as expected, but even the Longhorns looked beatable Sunday. They won a sludgy, foul-filled game over 7-seed Michigan State thanks to their superior athletes. The Spartans hung reasonably close for the whole game without giving non-alums any reason to believe they might win. And they didn't. But a really good team wouldn't have needed its A game to knock off Texas Sunday. If Texas had played the way it did Sunday against Connecticut in the previous round, all four top seeds would have watched the Final Four from home.
So much for the race going to the swift. Kansas, Syracuse, even Marquette are hardly Cinderella stories, but they're all at least minor surprises. The Jayhawks, as usual, looked like championship contenders from the start of the season, with forward Nick Collison and point guard Kirk Hinrich, who I swear some TV guy called "the Shaq and Kobe of the NCAA" this weekend. Uh, not quite. But they're good, especially Collison, and with one or two good players and some competent teammates, you can go a long way in today's college game.
You can even get to the Final Four on the back of one player, as both Syracuse and Marquette have done. The Orange have Carmelo Anthony, a true freshman, and the Golden Eagles have Dwyane Wade, who as a junior is something of an ancient mariner in these times. There are other decent players on both teams, but absent Anthony and Wade, who along with Collison are the best players in the Tournament, Syracuse and Marquette are bubble teams at best, not third seeds two wins from cutting down the nets.
So what happens in New Orleans next week? Don't ask me. Don't ask any expert. I've been running a little pool with all of the national sportswriters and commentators whose brackets I was able to find online. I included four Sports Illustrated writers, plus the magazine's bracket; three writers from the Sporting News; and, a new entry since we last talked, three writers from CBS.Sportsline.com. I also used the NCAA Selection Committee's seedings as a bracket, and filled one out for my son Buster, on whose behalf I flipped a coin to determine his picks.
Out of all that brain power, only Buster and the Sporting News' Kyle Veltrop had Kansas going to the Final Four. But both of their predicted champions are gone: Kentucky for Veltrop, East Tennessee State for Buster's coin.
In fact, none of us so-called experts picked as many as three Final Four teams, and only only three of us -- Veltrop, his co-worker Mike DeCourcey and CBS.Sportsline's Tony Mejia, who's already clinched the pool -- had two.
Yet we'll all spend this week blathering on about what's going to happen when Syracuse meets Texas and Marquette meets Kentucky. It's how we're able to provide our kids with coins to flip.
The wild card in the Final Four is Wade, a superb athlete who can dominate a game, as he did against Kentucky, like no other player still going. He'll need his teammates Travis Diener and Steve Novak to keep hitting threes the way they have been, but if he plays out of his mind against Kansas the way he did against Kentucky, I like the Eagles' chances.
Hinrich was equally out of his mind as Kansas beat Arizona, but he's not the player Wade is, and in fact he's not the player most commentators say he is. He's too inconsistent in big games for Kansas to be so reliant on him. If Wade is on, he's too much for Kansas, even though the TV people seem to have decided over the weekend that "this is Roy Williams' year," the idea being that he'll win a championship at Kansas and then go coach his alma mater, North Carolina.
Texas relies on point guard T.J. Ford, whose slim shoulders are sturdier than Hinrich's. He's quick and creative enough to handle Syracuse's stifling 2-3 zone defense, but I would have said the same thing about Oklahoma's backcourt tandem of Hollis Price and Quannas White. Ford's better than Price and White. The question is: Is he enough better? The answer, of course, is I don't know.
But I think so, and even though Oklahoma has more talent top to bottom than Texas, I think Ford will make the difference and the Longhorns will beat Syracuse, thus depriving us of a Marquette-Syracuse final, the first ever between two teams that have changed their nicknames for purposes of political correctness. But then, you shouldn't listen to me.
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Here are the standings in my Experts Pool, which has already been clinched by late-entry Tony Mejia of CBS.Sportsline.com. The prize for winning is dinner at my house. I know nothing about Tony Mejia, so I'm just going to take a chance that he'll never hear about his victory, and that if he does he's housebroken and likes spaghetti.
The scoring: 10 points for a first-round win, then 20, 40, 80, 120 and 160 in subsequent rounds. Entries with an asterisk can't score any more points.
Tony Mejia, CBS.Sportsline.com (930)
Mike DeCourcey, Sporting News (820)
Kyle Veltrop, Sporting News (810)
NCAA Selection Committee (700)
Seth Davis, Sports Illustrated (680)
King Kaufman, Salon (670)
Stewart Mandel, Sports Illustrated (640)
Dan Wetzel, CBS.Sportsline.com (620)*
Dennis Dodd, CBS.Sportsline.com (590)*
Tim Brando, Sporting News (590)*
Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated (530)*
Sports Illustrated (440)*
Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated (390)*
Buster, Coin Flip Reader (290)*