Represented in Atlanta will be the familiar Fortune 500 conferences – Big 12, Big Ten and ACC.
Kansas and Maryland were No. 1 seeds, and Oklahoma should have been. Indiana may have been a No. 5 seed, but if these Hoosiers are not as recognizable as Duke, Bob Knight’s former place of employment has never lacked for exposure and prestige.
The joyful noise produced by Kent State and Southern Illinois was welcome, but this tournament was destined to produce another quartet of marquee attractions.
This is the way it works. Last year, the ACC, Pac-10 and Big Ten were at the Final Four. Next year, expect more of the same.
The early-round upsets are fun, but the mid-majors and directional schools eventually are moved out to make room for the household names. This wouldn’t have changed Sunday had Oregon of the Pac-10 beaten Kansas or Big East Connecticut gotten by Maryland.
The Terps are the only repeat team from a year ago. Maybe this will help them when they meet Kansas in a game that’s far too close to call.
Hoops mavens expect the national champion to emerge from the Maryland-Kansas semifinal – Dick Vitale said as much Sunday night. This would make more sense if Oklahoma hadn’t already beaten both Maryland and Kansas this season.
Oklahoma just may be the nation’s best. Not that the NCAA tournament promises to identify the finest team. It never has. This Final Four, though, manages to include three schools that, off their season-long performances, can make honest claims of superiority.
How would the BCS, the controversial Division I-A football computer process, separate Kansas, Oklahoma and Maryland? Fortunately, basketball doesn’t work that way.
Perhaps the BCS’s voodoo science would have included Duke in the Final Four, but Duke of late was not the Blue Devils we saw over the winter.
Call it Duke mystique or blind faith in Mike Krzyzewski, but the Blue Devils’ reputation coming into the tournament exceeded their recent form. Remember, Duke blew a big lead to Virginia in late February, when the Cavaliers couldn’t beat anybody. Maybe that should have told us something.
If it wasn’t before, it’s obvious now that this Maryland team is more talented and resilient than was Duke, its conqueror in last year’s national semifinal. Against UConn, the Terps exhibited an offensive versatility – scoring inside and outside – and a reliable bench that each of the other Final Four teams also possess. Duke didn’t.
The Maryland-Kansas game may resemble a track meet at times, but how the Terps fare ultimately will depend on the board play of Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox.
“We’ve got tough guys,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said Sunday.
None is tougher than Baxter, who provides a lot more substance than style. With virtually no moves and average leaping ability, Maryland’s 6-foot-8 senior outplayed UConn’s more athletic big men.
By putting up a good fight, UConn brought out the best in Maryland. The Terps displayed their poise and balance in the final three minutes, breaking open a tie game with a 13-5 closing run.
Back-to-back Final Fours should be a satisfying feat for any program, especially one trying to escape the shadow of Duke.
“This time,” Williams said, “we want to get something done.”
Don’t they all.