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CHRIS DUFRESNE ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Fallen stars shuffle the NCAA deck

Several high-ranked teams have seen their tournament prospects dimmed by key injuries.

March 09, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE | ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Thirteen years after Princeton shocked UCLA in the NCAA tournament with the "backdoor" play, the Bruins contemplated another huge backside loss.

Senior guard Darren Collison bruised his tailbone during Saturday's win over Oregon, in which the final score wasn't nearly as important as the final X-ray.

"They say nothing is broken," Collison reported as a relieved Bruin Nation collectively emerged from underneath bedcovers.

Imagine UCLA trying to make a fourth straight Final Four run without Darren Collison.

His fender bender, though, should remind everyone of the precarious nature of all things leading to the NCAA tournament.

Forget about seedings and matchups and first-round jet-lag concerns -- nothing can tear up a bracket faster than a torn labrum.

Ever try advancing through a "big dance" contest with plantar fasciitis?

St. Mary's was 18-1 with star guard Patrick Mills running the show, but the Gaels found themselves scrambling for their NCAA at-large lives after Mills broke his hand against Gonzaga in late January.

The NCAA selection committee on Sunday night was eagerly monitoring Mills' return, against Portland in the West Coast Conference tournament, to assess the team's tournament worthiness.

Poor Marquette has lost four straight games since star guard Dominic James broke his left foot against Connecticut on Feb. 25.

Marquette, from the Big East, was ranked No. 8 and surging with James as one of three starring guards, but losing him was like sawing off one leg of a three-pronged bar stool.

The Golden Eagles are still a cinch to make the NCAA tournament, but the selection committee is generally heartless in seeding matters. It will slot Marquette in next week's 65-team bracket based on how the team is playing without James, which hasn't been very good.

Connecticut understands. Jim Calhoun's team has lost to Pittsburgh twice since losing Jerome Dyson, a 13-point-a-game scorer and the Huskies' best defender, to torn knee ligaments. The injury could ultimately cost Connecticut a top seeding and maybe cost Calhoun a third national title.

No school suffered a worse injury fate than top-ranked Cincinnati in 2000 after star center Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the Conference USA tournament.

With Martin out, the selection committee assessed the seeding situation and demoted Cincinnati to the No. 2 line.

The Bearcats were outraged, but then lost in the second round to Tulsa. Who knows, had Cincinnati won the national title that year instead of Michigan State, Bob Huggins might still be coaching in the Queen City.

Nerve-racked coaches this week will be trying to overcome FinalFouraphobia.

North Carolina entered Sunday's game against Duke worried about an injury to point guard Ty Lawson's big toe (update: Lawson looked fine in the Tar Heels' Atlantic Coast Conference title-clinching win over Duke).

Duke was playing again without guard Nolan Smith (concussion).

Ohio State starting center Dallas Lauderdale left Sunday's game against Northwestern with a shoulder injury.

Blake Griffin, Oklahoma's slam-dunk national player of the year, was knocked woozy against Texas a few weeks back, and that caused Sooners Coach Jeff Capel to get dizzy.

Oklahoma lost two games without Griffin and put at risk a possible top tournament seeding.

Then, during Saturday's win over Oklahoma State in Norman, Griffin finished a fastbreak with a ramrod dunk that had his recently concussed head coming way too close to the rim.

Half the Oklahoma crowd probably thought, "There goes Griffin!" as the other half worried, "There goes the season!"

An Associated Press photo captured Washington players Jon Brockman and Quincy Pondexter leaping into each other's arms after the Huskies, with a win over rival Washington State, clinched their first outright league title since 1953.

Easy there, kids.

Have you not seen that famous blooper of NFL kicker Bill Gramatica tearing his ACL after celebrating a field goal?

And then there's the cautionary tale involving Ted Ginn Jr., the fleet-footed former Ohio State receiver who returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown against Florida in the 2007 Bowl Championship Series title game. Ginn sprained his ankle in the post-score frolic, didn't return, and Florida won the national title.

From now until April in Detroit, basketball coaches will be on pins and needles while hoping their players steer clear of them.

Bottom line: Be careful out there, and hope your biggest shot during tournament week isn't cortisone.

Weekend wrap

So close: Northwestern lost perhaps the biggest basketball game in school history on Sunday at Ohio State. The final score was 52-47, which dropped Northwestern to 17-12 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten. A victory would have kept alive the Wildcats' at-large hopes of making the NCAA tournament. Northwestern hosted the first NCAA championship in 1939 but has never qualified. As it stands, the Wildcats' only route to the tournament would be winning next week's conference tournament.

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