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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

UCLA and USC can feel a little better now

The teams that sent the Bruins and Trojans home -- Villanova and Michigan State -- are headed to the Final Four next weekend in Detroit. Connecticut and North Carolina round out the list.

March 30, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE

Upon further review, amateur basketball in Los Angeles may not have completely dried up.

The Pacific 10 Conference might even want to re-hang its shingle while our local coaches, Ben Howland and Tim Floyd -- especially Floyd -- should feel better about their upcoming performance reviews.

Huh?

UCLA and USC didn't slip past the second round of this year's NCAA tournament, but the schools that sent our majors home -- Villanova and Michigan State -- are headed to the Final Four next weekend in Detroit.

That has to count for something. . . .

(Note: This is called localizing a national basketball event we haven't been deeply involved with, unless you count Cal Poly Pomona losing Saturday on a last-second overtime shot to Findlay in the Division II final.)

Still, this NCAA weekend did cast "one shining moment" into a different light.

After two-plus weeks of play that included a play-in game, the field of 65 has been weed-whacked down to four.

Villanova defeated top-seeded Pittsburgh in the East and will play North Carolina, which drained the oil out of Oklahoma in the South.

And Michigan State, which out-hustled the Midwest Regional away from top-seeded Louisville, will play convicted-by-Yahoo Connecticut, champion of the West.

Villanova's entry serves as mild deodorizer -- freshly squeezed lemon? -- for UCLA's 20-point, roadside-restroom loss.

Point 1: That game was played in Philadelphia, significantly closer to Villanova than Westwood.

Point 2: Villanova beat Duke by 23.

Point 3: See Point 2.

And here's something USC fans can say at spring football without being snickered at: "We had a better shot of winning the basketball national title."

That chance of a lifetime, lost in some final Minneapolis minutes, can't be recouped, but USC and Michigan State were one Daniel Hackett breakaway basket from being tied at 71-71 before the ball "slipped" out of his hands.

Michigan State ended up winning by five, 74-69.

And so, four teams, none from around here but all owning intriguing story lines, do the march toward April:

* Michigan State.

There's more than a school involved here. The Spartans are the first team to play a Final Four in its home state since Duke in 1994, and the timing couldn't be better.

The "state" of Michigan is crud. A woman working for a Detroit paper, during a 15-minute media shuttle bus ride back to the hotel after the Boston regional, told a Pittsburgh television man a modernized version of "The Grapes of Wrath." She spoke of foreclosed homes in her neighborhood falling into disrepair as the banks sit back and do nothing. She spoke of colleagues desperate for work and possibly, soon, becoming one of them herself. She hoped the media arriving for the Final Four wouldn't disparage her city more than the economy already has.

Detroit needed Michigan State in the Final Four the way New Orleans needed the Saints after Katrina.

"I'm hoping we're the sunshine," Spartans Coach Tom Izzo said Sunday. "I'm hoping we're something to embrace."

Prepare, Spartans, to be hugged.

* Connecticut.

The Huskies advance to their third Final Four under a different cloud. Players didn't even cut down the nets after outlasting Missouri in Arizona, even though both of the Huskies' national titles, in 1999 and 2004, were won out of the West.

"I'm buying a house," Coach Jim Calhoun joked in between questions about the 508-page NCAA rules manual.

There have been few chuckles for a coach embattled by a Yahoo report that seems to have nailed the program with NCAA violations tied to a player, Nate Miles, who never enjoyed a media timeout with this team.

The Huskies have already overcome the loss of star guard Jerome Dyson to injury, and now this?

Calhoun, 66, is growing more haggard by the minute as he battles his inquisitors.

"It does matter," he said of his reputation. "I'm a human being. I wear my emotions on my sleeve."

If Connecticut does win the national title, it wouldn't be a shock if Calhoun faxed in his retirement in July from a summer cottage.

* Villanova. The third-seeded Wildcats aren't George Mason, but they're as close to charming as we can muster with their squad of over-achieving "tweener" players, a newly christened, game-winning hero in guard Scottie Reynolds and nice-guy Jay Wright -- who dresses as well as he coaches.

Villanova has a back story, returning to the Final Four for the first time since 1985, the year it shocked Patrick Ewing and Hoya Paranoia to win the national title.

This year, the Wildcats need to shock Tyler Hansbrough and North Carolina.

* North Carolina.

Well, what do you know? The Tar Heels team some projected as one of the greatest of all time, before it opened conference play 0-2, is now nicely positioned to render unto Carolina all that is Carolina's: um, the national title.

Looking ahead: North Carolina against Michigan State in the title game would be a rematch of a game played at Ford Field in December. The mighty Tar Heels booked the game at the Final Four site to, you know, measure the drapes.

North Carolina won by 35.

After Michigan State defeated USC in the NCAA tournament, someone asked Spartans center Goran Suton what team left in the field he wanted to play most.

Suton broke the cardinal "one-game-at-a-time" rule and jumped four rungs ahead in the bracket:

"Down the road I would like to play the North Carolina game," Suton said.

Either way, Tar Heels Coach Roy Williams is always good for a good laugh.

Or a good cry.

--

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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