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Up for Grabs

With no dynasty in place, several schools have a legitimate shot at winning the championship in a year when Saint Joseph's can be an underdog and seeded No. 1

March 15, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

It's not quite anybody's ballgame.

Let's go ahead and say that Liberty, the school founded by Jerry Falwell, is one of the teams with absolutely no chance of winning college basketball's national championship.

But the NCAA tournament is no longer the Duke Invitational, and unlike last season, when Kentucky entered the tournament with a 23-game winning streak, there is no preordained king that must be toppled.

To illustrate that a fresh face might have a chance, consider this:

Saint Joseph's -- a Jesuit school with a 3,200-seat gym built in 1949 -- is among the official favorites to reach the Final Four in San Antonio. Along with Kentucky, Duke and Stanford, Saint Joe's was awarded a No. 1 seeding when the NCAA tournament field was announced Sunday.

But that doesn't mean those four will convene in Texas.

Last season, three of the four top-seeded teams lost before the Final Four, and third-seeded Syracuse -- a team led by freshman Carmelo Anthony that was unranked when the season began -- walked away with the prize.

Tempting as it is, don't count on an underdog to win. Although a No. 1 seeding is far from a guarantee of reaching the Final Four, 12 of the last 20 teams to win the championship have been No. 1s.

The NCAA and CBS -- in the midst of a $6-billion deal to broadcast the tournament through 2014 -- could benefit from a team such as Saint Joe's doing well.

CBS probably was rooting for the Hawks and Stanford to carry their undefeated records into the NCAA tournament, capturing people's imaginations as they chased Indiana's record as the last undefeated national champion, in 1976.

That's because it wasn't hard to notice that when CBS aired a highlight reel of tournament moments to open the pairings show Sunday, almost all of them were more than a decade old.

Twenty-five years after Magic Johnson's Michigan State team beat Larry Bird's Indiana State team as they began the rivalry that made the NBA what it is today, that 1979 championship game remains the highest-rated telecast in tournament history.

With a 24.1 rating and 38 share, it was roughly double last season's 12.6 rating and 19 share, which itself was down 26% from the season before, perhaps in part because viewers were tuned to the just-begun war in Iraq.

The office-pool frenzy that is March Madness was built largely on the drama of upsets such as North Carolina State's crazy last-second victory over Houston's Phi Slama Jama team in 1983 and Villanova's upset of Patrick Ewing's Georgetown team in 1985. (Villanova, seeded eighth, remains the lowest-seeded team ever to win.)

But as more of the best players cut short their college stays -- Anthony took his ball and championship ring to the NBA after one season -- dominant teams don't stay together very long.

One has to wonder: Can there be a David without a Goliath?

Another thing: Sometimes, underdogs grow up.

Gonzaga, the darling of years past, is now a member of the establishment after earning a No. 2 seeding.

The Zags open with Valparaiso on Thursday in Seattle, and technically cannot pull an upset before a potential regional final against top-seeded Kentucky.

But here is an important point: The Zags and Saint Joe's came by their seedings honestly.

Although CBS analyst Billy Packer -- an Atlantic Coast Conference loyalist who played for Wake Forest in the 1962 Final Four -- criticized Saint Joe's No. 1 seeding, it was not simply a gift for remaining undefeated until a 20-point loss to Xavier in the Atlantic 10 tournament.

Saint Joe's Ratings Percentage Index -- the complex computer formula used to help select and seed the field -- was as high as No. 1 during the season and was No. 3 even after the loss, according to expert Jerry Palm's ratings.

"I don't think the committee was particularly caught up in the fact they were undefeated, although it makes a good story line," said Iowa Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby, chairman of the selection committee.

"Saint Joe's played the No. 1 nonconference schedule in the country. They didn't just play a good schedule. They played the best, based on RPI."

One of Saint Joe's opponents was Gonzaga, a team the Hawks defeated by seven in the first game of the season.

Two years ago, there was considerable controversy when Gonzaga was seeded sixth in its regional -- or in the 21-24 range overall -- despite being ranked No. 6 in the nation. But Gonzaga's RPI that season was 21.

This season, Gonzaga's RPI was No. 9, meaning it was only a tiny favor to nudge the Zags ahead of Pittsburgh, No. 8 in the RPI, to seed the Zags second.

"Gonzaga is on the '2' line because it stood on its own portfolio," Bowlsby said. "Their only losses this season were to Saint Joe's and Stanford, which until two weeks ago were the only two undefeated teams in the country. We think a lot of Gonzaga. I think this is the best team they've had."

As for Pitt, which would have been in the running for a top seeding except for a three-point loss to Connecticut in the Big East final, the Panthers ended up a No. 3.

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