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We'll Take the Silver Lining

March 27, 2000|CHRIS DUFRESNE


Wow, was that one wild, two-week swing.

Michigan State, Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina have advanced to this weekend's Final Four in Indianapolis, proving the NCAA selection committee might just as easily have picked the 64-team field out of Bobby Knight's . . . well, let's not go there.

Frankly, this is the sorriest assemblage of schools to make the finals since the tournament expanded in 1985.

Of the four top seeded schools, only Michigan State survived in the Midwest Regional. Wisconsin (West) and North Carolina (South) were seeded eighth in their regions, while Florida emerged from the East as a No. 5.

No eighth-seeded team has made the Final Four since Villanova in 1985, and this year we get two?

Before this year, no team ever made the Final Four with 13 losses.

Within 24 hours, 13-loss Wisconsin and North Carolina are booking passage to Indianapolis.

And we thought it was slumming in 1989 when Michigan and Seton Hall played the 1989 title game as a pair of three seeds.

If Wisconsin and North Carolina win Saturday, CBS will be standing directly behind two No. 8 balls for next Monday's championship game.

There has been much talk about the impact of players leaving college early for the NBA, and perhaps now we have realized the result.

The talent level is not what it used to be, which has wrought parity, which has wrought Wisconsin, a school that probably has not once this season had to leave a pass for an NBA scout.

This may not be a bad thing. Maybe it was the drip-drip-drip exodus of sheer athleticism that allowed a team like Wisconsin to make one of the most improbable runs in recent tournament history.

Maybe it allowed a teacher such as Dick Bennett to show us that, beneath the tomahawk jams and wrap-around passes, there remains a game of simplistic beauty.

"I always thought we were playing the game the way you were supposed to," Bennett said after defeating Purdue on Saturday. "It wasn't until recent years that I've learned I was setting the game back."

While NBA ratings ebb, parity at the college level has produced one of the most exciting tournaments, with 20 games decided by five or fewer points.

So, there may be a dilution.

So what?

Are Bennett's Badgers not athletic because most of their players can't jump through the roof?

"I happen to consider anticipation and reaction as part of athleticism," Bennett said. "I've seen great athletes with no reaction, and they're almost useless."

If this is parity, let the NBA reap the spoils.

We'll take three of the four Final Four teams needing near-death experiences to get to Indianapolis.

Florida was loaded with talent, yes, but it was young and untested. The Gators finished the regular season with a loss to Kentucky, then were ousted in the Southeastern Conference tournament by Auburn.

Making the NCAA tournament with a No. 5 seeding, Florida needed a miracle last-second shot by Mike Miller in the first round to defeat Butler. Since, the Gators have knocked off No. 4 Illinois, No. 1 Duke and No. 3 Oklahoma State.

If this is parity, let the NBA form its own farm league.

Fine by us so long as the fallout for the college game is can't-miss story lines.

Consider that Wisconsin and North Carolina entered March with the very real prospect of not making the tournament.

Wisconsin finished 8-8 in the Big Ten after starting out 1-4, and 11-10 overall. The Badgers rescued their season with a must-win at home against Indiana on March 5. Wisconsin was 16-12 entering the Big Ten Tournament and had to defeat Northwestern in the first round and then, perhaps, Purdue to convince the NCAA selection committee it was tournament-worthy.

The Badgers won both games, lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament final, made the field and have played four brilliant games to flirt with their first national title since 1941.

North Carolina hit the tournament on the skids, losing four of its last six games. The storied program was in disarray while its coach, Bill Guthridge, was forced to defend the impossible job he inherited from Dean Smith.

Then, as if with a flick of a light switch, the Tar Heels and their coach have been redeemed despite the fact that, unless they win the national championship, North Carolina will still finish with its most defeats since 1951-52.

The Tar Heels have now made a Final Four in every decade since the 1940s, and Guthridge has become one of this week's more enthralling stories.

Guthridge doesn't let his emotions show much, yet the struggles of the program had to be eating away at him. He was, for years, Smith's loyal and dogged assistant. At the 1981 Final Four in Indianapolis, it was Guthridge who chased a referee into the hallway after Smith was ejected from a semifinal defeat to Kansas.

Today, Guthridge will be in Parsons, Kan., for the 10:30 a.m. burial of his mother, Betty, who died last week at age 96.

Then, he will head to Indianapolis, yes Indy, to raise more ruckus with the refs.

Not even Michigan State, the clear class of the field, has been immune to the fragility of the new-age bracket.

The Spartans had to rally to defeat Utah, Syracuse and Iowa State to win the Midwest. They outscored Syracuse, 17-0, down the stretch and Iowa State, 17-3.

Michigan State is led by a core of seniors--Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, A.J. Granger--who probably weren't good enough to leave early for the NBA.

If this is what parity has wrought, let all the best players chase NBA dreams.

Turns out what's left over isn't half bad.

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