King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NCAA Tournament: No Hollywood endings but plenty of classics as the Final Four are set and high-flying St. Joe's is finished.

By Salon Staff
Published March 29, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

When Jameer Nelson of St. Joe's missed that 16-foot shot at the buzzer Saturday night that would have tied Oklahoma State in the East Rutherford regional final, I was shocked, weren't you?

Here was the best player in the nation, the star of the team that was college basketball's best story all year, getting a good look at the basket for a shot that would have sent a classic NCAA Tournament game to overtime. I know that life is not the movies. I know that things don't happen a certain way just because that way would be more dramatic or ironic or picturesque. I don't care. Jameer Nelson was supposed to make that shot. That game was supposed to keep going.

And I suppose Xavier was supposed to beat Duke in the Atlanta final Sunday, the remaining Cinderella team, a 7-seed, knocking off the Microsoft of college basketball to get into the Final Four against the already-advanced powerhouses, Connecticut, Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech. But Duke doesn't play by movie rules either. Duke plays by the rules of the real world, where the smart money's always on Goliath. And if you listen to the legions who hate the Blue Devils, the referees play by the rules of Duke.

I'm sure there'll be whining along those lines after Duke's hard-fought win Sunday, especially since the game may have hinged on Xavier's best inside player, Anthony Myles, being whistled for his fourth and fifth fouls six seconds apart with more than 12 minutes remaining. But as a person who has never failed to root against Duke, not once, I have never been able to see that pro-Duke bias by the officials, and I didn't see it Sunday. Foul calls are as random, inexplicable and nonsensical in Duke's games as in anybody else's.

But we were talking about the movies, the sappy kind that they make about sports. This Tournament has been miserly with those violin-crescendo moments, those popcorn-throwing freeze-frames. There hasn't been a single buzzer-beater, is what I'm saying. There have been some big shots hit with a few seconds left, including two in the weekend's four regional finals, 3-pointers by J.R. Giddens of Kansas with 16 seconds left against Georgia Tech, sending that St. Louis game into an overtime that Tech would dominate, and by John Lucas of Oklahoma State with 6.9 seconds to go against St. Joe's, setting the stage for Nelson's uncinematic misfire.

But no Keith Smart. No Christian Laettner. We have three more chances next weekend to get that electrifying scene: the release, the breath-held, all-time-stopped flight of the ball, the swish as the horn sounds, the wild celebration, dogpiling at center court like second-graders.

Then there's the other side: The devastation of the losers, face down on the court, crying, faces buried in towels on the bench or staring in disbelief at the belly-laughing winners they thought sure they'd beaten. There's been no shortage of those scenes in this Tournament because you don't need a buzzer beater to turn the losers' eyes red. That scene will be replayed three more times next week when Oklahoma State plays Georgia Tech and UConn meets Duke on Saturday, with the winners playing for the title next Monday.

The closest thing to a movie moment has been Lucas' game-winner against St. Joe's. The quick little guard, a transfer in from the tragic mess at Baylor last year, had had a nightmare of a first half, scoring two points and missing all five 3-pointers he'd hoisted, most of them badly, as his Cowboys fell behind by six at the half. And although he'd added 12 points in a much better second half, when he pulled up for that decisive jumper, teammate Joey Graham having just barely avoided a turnover in getting the ball to him, Lucas was 2-for-11 from beyond the arc.

He nailed it for the two-point lead, and then when Nelson's shot fell short seven seconds later, leaving the player of the year sitting dazed on the hardwood, Lucas -- who is John Lucas III -- leaped into the stands and into a bearhug with his father, the former college star and pro player and coach. It wasn't a game-winner at the horn, but it was pretty good stuff.

Not to obsess over buzzer-beaters, though. There has been plenty to watch in this Tournament. That Oklahoma State win over St. Joe's was the game of the year, a genuine thriller, and Georgia Tech-Kansas and Duke-Xavier were right up there too, tense, scrapping games that featured brilliant plays, fascinating story lines -- especially Marvin Lewis and then Jarrett Jack stepping up in Georgia Tech's two weekend wins after star B.J. Elder got hurt -- and just enough rotten shooting and dumb turnovers to remind you that you were watching college basketball. In fact, of the 12 games played in the last four days, all of them were at least very good except UConn's drubbing of Vandy and Alabama in Phoenix and Kansas' Sweet 16 rout of Alabama-Birmingham.

I'm sorry I won't get to see St. Joseph's anymore. The Hawks are a fun team to watch because they're so dependent on their guards, and good guards are more interesting than great front-line players, in my opinion. A steal, a fast-break and a pull-up jumper are more exciting to me than superior post moves. Nelson and Delonte West were a revelation all year as St. Joe's went undefeated in the regular season. They damn near carried that team, one with no top-flight big men, to the Final Four.

I've gotten some barking from St. Joe's fans for agreeing with Billy Packer that the Hawks didn't deserve a No. 1 seed. I'll stand by that, though. I don't think it matters at all who's seeded 1 or 2, but I've thought all along that St. Joe's was among the half-dozen best teams in the country, which is why I picked the Hawks to make the Elite 8 and then lose to Oklahoma State, which is what they did. Being called the fifth or so best team in the country is nothing to get insulted about.

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Pool demise report premature [PERMALINK]

I wrote last week that I was free to root for underdogs whole-heartedly because I'd picked Kentucky to win the Tournament and was therefore doomed in the Salon Pool o' Experts, which features various national typists and chatterers. Not so fast! I'm still alive.

The early exits of Final Four favorites Stanford and Gonzaga created havoc among experts like Seth Davis, CBS's studio pontificator who managed to correctly pick one Final Four team. So I still have a slim chance to win after picking three of the four. Right now CBS announcer Tim Brando is in the lead and will take the pool in four of the eight possible scenarios: if Georgia Tech and UConn play for the title, regardless of who wins, if Georgia Tech beats Duke in the final, or if Oklahoma State beats UConn.

I, incredibly, am second, well ahead of third-place Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News, who will win if Duke is the champion. If UConn wins the championship by beating Oklahoma State, defending Pool o' Experts champion Tony Mejia of will come from a seventh-place tie with John Salley to win a second dinner at my house (home cooking not implied). My only chance is for Duke and Oklahoma State to meet in the title game, with Oklahoma State winning.

If Duke wins the title, my son Buster, the coin-flippinest 1-year-old in America, could finish as high as fifth in this 11-bracket pool that includes the above-mentioned experts as well as the NCAA Selection Committee and various Sports Illustrated writers. By flipping a coin. Remember that next time an "expert" like me is trying to tell you what's up. Buster's bracket and the fact that Duke winning one more game would help me win the pool almost get me to the point of rooting for the Blue Devils in their semifinal game. I don't think I will, but at least if I do I'll have the refs on my side.

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