March 28, 2006

Finally...Four

Here's guessing your tuning in this weekend less with a chance to cash in on your bracket and more eager to watch four fantastic stories pen the final chapter in their storybook stomp to Indianapolis.

In a span of 12 games, as 16 contenders were whittled to 4, The Tournament (there is no equal) treated us to bracket-busting upsets, Maalox sponsored overtimes, gripping comebacks galore, breathtaking buzzer beaters, incredulous turnovers and a game-changing goaltending call that will haunt my bank account for tournaments to come.

You want historical significance? For the first time since 1980, not a single #1 seed advanced to the Final Four and George Mason's #11 seed is the lowest since Villanova's remarkable romp in 1986.

This is the same George Mason, mind you, that barely cracked the field of 65 and survived their 1st round with their starting point guard suspended (I'm taking the high road on that can of worms).

That, my friends, is March Madness in its purest form.

Without fail, the tournament lived up to its maddening ways as the gripping saga of hardwood dreams unfolded, some realized, others shattered.

The farewell of scoring machines J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison, the regular season's feel-good story, launched us into a wild weekend of tourney unpredictability every turn along the way.

The beauty of the Final Four is at work with the emergence of four teams dedicated to the Norman Dale ideals of team basketball, passing and defense, and none have been caught watching the paint dry.

Though not the usual suspects as we enter "One Shining Moment" territory, each knocked off the #1 seed in their regional, seizing the opportunity to shine on basketball's biggest stage, proving to bracketmaniacs that it's the hungriest teams that feast in Indy this weekend.

It's anybody's guess who will surf their tidal wave of momentum to the laddertop of Monday night's climax. Here's each school's permission slip to run with scissors.

Florida

No, football hasn't instituted the playoff system just yet. But these Gator hoopsters are every bit as Fun N' Gun as their gridiron counterparts. They cruised through the Minneapolis Regional like a spring vacationer in the Sunshine State, dictating the tempo with their athleticism and play-making abilities. Watching Joakim Noah quarterback the full-throttle attack is a spectacle to behold. If he continues to dismantle the opposition at both ends of the court, it will be party time in Gainesville and bon voyage for the son of Hall of Fame tennis player Yannick Noah, the inspiration for his diggable hairdo. Billy Donovan's experience leading Florida to a runner-up finish in 2000 only helps their cause, .

George Mason
You'd think the hard part was done after toppling the defending champ Tar Heels, another 2005 Final Four participant in Michigan State, and easily the country's most talented team and odds-on favorite, Connecticut Huskies. Unfortunately, the road has just begun for the Virginia darlings. Their biggest advantage? Underdog factor. They've ridden it this far, what's another two games? They wear their small-school chip on the shoulder like a badge of honor. Why couldn't history repeat itself as George Mason mimics the small school that could, Milan High School, and win one for mid-majors everywhere? These Patriots don't need Adam Vinatieri to chip in game-winning 3-pointers. If they play the loose, team-oriented basketball that trumped the traditional powers, we could be privvy to the ultimate shocker in college sports history. Regardless of the outcome, George Mason's epic run will be cherished in tourney lore forever.

LSU
Another SEC football powerhouse making a splash in the tourney, the Bayou brand of basketball has overwhelmed the likes of Duke and Texas with unbridled athleticism and unmatched intensity. Glen "Big Baby" Davis is the Tigers poster child, an ex-running back who's as hard to stop in the paint as Jerome Bettis on the goal line. Along with the lightning quick instincts of Darrel Mitchell and the long-armed freak of nature Tyrus Thomas, LSU defends its goal like a tigress guarding her cubs. As long as they keep exploiting their mismatches and wreaking havoc on the glass, we could be in for a Mardi Gras redux.

UCLA
College basketball's most storied program finds itself in a familiar setting as the Bruins aim to bump their banner total to an even dozen. Granted, they'll have to aim a little better than they did in eeking by Memphis to win the Oakland Regional. But Ben Howland's boys have bought in to their defense first mentality, harrassing their opponents beyond frustration. With such emphasis on keeping the score to a minimum, any offensive rhythm established is icing on the cake. UCLA knows this trip to Indy means nothing without any hardware. Call it a hunch, but the powder blue and gold seem to be saving their best for last, poised to add their name to the legendary list of Westwood wonders.

2 comments:

irish22nd said...

I attended a very small high school in the Milan Indian's basketball conference. They almost pulled their own "Hoosier's" feat this year, losing by six in the regional final to the eventual state champion. Anyway, I'll stop trying to brag now. Milan has grown somewhat and the basketball there is still very popular, as it is in all of Indiana. Although the Indians don't have a great team by any means anymore, it was a pretty cool experience being around the history and tradition.

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