King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NCAA Tournament: In an incredible, indescribable, dazzling couple of days, Louisville, Illinois, North Carolina and Michigan State reach the Final Four.

By Salon Staff
March 29, 2005 1:00AM (UTC)
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Words are failing me after the four NCAA Tournament games Saturday and Sunday, so I've been making a list of the ones other people have been using to describe them.

Unbelievable. Electrifying. Breathtaking.

Saturday may have given us the greatest back-to-back games in college basketball history, a pair of impossible comebacks that became overtime thrillers. Louisville, once down by 20 to a West Virginia team that simply couldn't miss a shot, came back to force overtime, then win. It was the game of the year -- for about an hour. Then it was nothing, a curtain raiser.

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In the nightcap, Illinois was down by 15 to Arizona with four minutes to play, roared back to send that game to overtime, then hung on to win with one last defensive stop.

Astonishing. Indescribable. Thrilling.

Sunday was more of the same. Not quite as good, but that's praising with faint damnation. Only the North Carolina win over Wisconsin wasn't a game for the time capsule, the only one of the four Elite 8 games not to go to overtime, not to feature a crazy, frantic finish or two, or three.

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On any other weekend it would have been a terrific game, a tense battle of styles and a near upset of a top seed. On this weekend it was one to throw back. Merely a great game? You might try the tournament down the street. We hear they're looking for great games. Around here, we settle for nothing less than jaw-dropping.

Improbable. Amazing. Dazzling.

Kentucky sent its see-saw game with Michigan State into overtime on a buzzer 3-pointer by Patrick Sparks that bounced around the rim crazily, looking for all the world like a miss, right up to the moment it dropped through the hoop.

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Officials rushed over to the scorer's table, as is their habit. At first it looked like a routine check to ensure that Sparks got the shot off in time, which he clearly had, but wait, that's not what they were looking at.

Sparks had launched a 3-pointer over Matt Trannon from straight away with about eight seconds left, but Trannon got a hand on the shot and it fell short. Kentucky's Kelenna Azubuike grabbed the air ball, raced to the right corner, turned and launched a three with about four seconds left. Michigan State fans must have felt like time had ground to a halt. Was it really taking this long for those last few seconds to go by?

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Azubuike's shot hit the front rim and bounced out to Sparks, still standing near the top of the key. He fielded the ball behind the arc, took a half-step forward with his right foot and elevated. Spartan Kelvin Torbert had been chasing the loose ball. Now he went up with Sparks, bumping him, then raising his arms in the international signal for "I know I just committed a foul, please don't call it."

The ball left Sparks' hand with 0.8 seconds remaining. It hit the front rim, slid to the back iron and popped in the air, hitting the backboard on the way up. Then it landed on the front rim again, hop, hop, hopped along the left side of the hoop toward the back and, finally, gently, settled its way down the drain.

It was that little half-step. That's what the zebras were looking at. If Sparks' toe had touched the line, it would have been a two-pointer and a Michigan State win. The video was inconclusive. CBS blew it up for the refs and the fans at home, Michelangelo Antonioni style. Still impossible to tell. Whichever way you wanted to see it, there was just enough on the tape to convince you you were right. The call stood. Overtime.

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Michigan State, which had been up by six with two minutes left in regulation, appeared to be falling apart, committing back-to-back turnovers in the first minute of overtime, but the Spartans pulled it together, got a lead, gave it up, tied the game again and sent it to another extra period, where they won.

Classic. Magic. Dramatic.

Here's how this weekend was: What looked like the coaching decision of the year turned out to be nothing more than trying to keep a hurting player out of harm's way.

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In the Arizona-Illinois game Saturday, the Wildcats came out of a timeout with 11.8 seconds left in overtime down by a point. All night, Deron Williams, the brilliant Illinois guard, had shut down Salim Stoudamire, Arizona's shooting and scoring machine. Stoudamire was 2-for-13 shooting. His teammate, though, Hassan Adams, had knifed his way into the lane almost at will, scoring 21 points on layup after layup.

For this final play Arizona coach Lute Olson could have gone one of two ways, with his best player, Stoudamire, or with the hot hand, Adams. He went with Adams, who took a pass beyond the right elbow with his back to the basket, turned, faked right and drove hard to his left, straight for the paint. He took one step and stopped. His path was blocked. Deron Williams was there. He hadn't bit on the fake.

Adams had no time left to do anything but throw up a desperate shot, which missed badly.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber looked like a genius, and maybe he is one, but after the game Williams, who also hit the game-tying three in regulation and two more big ones in overtime, said he told Weber his legs were cramping and he couldn't stay with Stoudamire anymore, so Weber put him on Adams. A matter of convenience. And all Williams did was come up with the biggest stop since Hakim Warrick swatted away that shot in the 2003 Championship Game.

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That's how it went all weekend, and I'm not doing it justice. The winners will get together next weekend in St. Louis for the Final Four, Illinois playing Louisville and North Carolina meeting Michigan State in the semifinals Saturday, then the winners playing for the title Monday night.

Those are going to have to be some ballgames to match these regional finals. They'll have to be wild. Epic. Incredible. Electric.

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Pool o' experts update [PERMALINK]

This is the last time I let someone sign up for the Pool o' Experts. In the past, participants have always been chosen by me without, as far as I know, their knowledge. This year I allowed blogger and Foxsports.com columnist Yoni Cohen to opt in because his blog is really good and also because he's a former student and he asked nicely.

And it looks like he's going to win it. Great, the one person most likely to actually claim the prize for winning this thing, which is dinner at my house, home cooking not implied.

Everyone in the pool has either Illinois, North Carolina or an already-eliminated team winning the Tournament, so nobody's going to ride Louisville or Michigan State to a surprise win here, though it should be noted that with all the analytical horsepower that went into the 16 brackets in the Pool o' Experts, only one of them can boast Michigan State in the Final Four. And what genius saw through that under-the-radar season and sent the Spartans to St. Louis?

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Buster, coin-flippinest 2-year-old in America. And if State can pull the upset over North Carolina in the semifinal, Buster will, for the first time in his life, escape the cellar of one of this column's contests, which might be a prelude to his escaping the actual cellar in real life. He's already assured of no worse than a tie for last with Tim Brando, but a Michigan State win will leave Brando in the dust.

Cohen is our winner unless North Carolina wins the title. In that case, the Pool o' Experts goes to CBS.SportsLine.com's users, who ain't coming to my house. They're standing in for the wisdom of the masses.

Here are the standings through four rounds, with score so far and, in parentheses, maximum possible score. Correct picks are awarded 10 points in the first round, 20, 40, 80, 120 and 160 in subsequent rounds.

1. Yoni Cohen, Yocohoops/Foxsports.com: 870 (1,270)
2. Kyle Veltrop, Sporting News: 840 (1,240)
3. Stewart Mandel, Sports Illustrated: 750 (1,030)
4. CBS.SportsLine.com users: 740 (1,140)
5. NCAA Selection Committee: 680 (1,080)
6. Tony Mejia, CBS.SportsLine.com: 640 (1,040)
7. Seth Davis, Sports Illustrated/CBS: 640 (920)
8. Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated: 630 (1,030)
8. Sports Illustrated: 630 (1,030)
10. John Salley, Fox Sports: 630 (750)
11. Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News: 590 (710)
12. King Kaufman, Salon: 540 (820)
13. Luke Winn, Sports Illustrated: 500 (780)
14. Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated: 500 (780)
15. Buster, Coin Flip the Magazine: 480 (600)
16. Tim Brando, Sporting News/CBS: 480 (480)

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