Tuesday, March 22, 2005
If the 1's don't make it, look at what could happen
By Pat Forde ESPN.com
Call it a statistical quirk, a mildly interesting coincidence or something even less important than that. But for the 17th consecutive NCAA Tournament, this fact remains inviolate:
In odd-numbered years, all four No. 1 seeds advance to the Sweet Sixteen. In even-numbered years, a No.1 goes down early.
(Those who picked Pitt/Pacific to knock off Washington in the second round probably wish we'd mentioned this last week and spared your bracket the damage. Sorry.)
This being 2005, they're all in. Illinois, Washington, Duke and North Carolina will now attempt to make history by all advancing to the Final Four.
There are statistical absolutes at either end of the tournament. No No. 1 seed has ever lost in the first round, but four No. 1s have never won four games apiece.
If it happens this year, we could have the best of times in St. Louis.
A Duke-Carolina Final Four game? Somebody sedate Billy Packer. Even taking (some) of the overarching rivalry hysteria out of that potential matchup, it would be one heck of a 2005 rubber match, after the first two games this season went down to the wire.
Washington-Illinois could be a potential classic, as well, with six fast and fearless perimeter players going at each other. Between Dee Brown and Nate Robinson, there would be plenty of short-man gusto on the court. And it would be a great validating moment for Bruce Weber and Lorenzo Romar, two coaches who have admirably handled their first seasons as true national curiosities.
But you know it's not going to happen. It never does.
So instead of blue-skying about a dream scenario in St. Louis, let's look at this from the pessimist's perspective.
Here are the worst things that could happen to the tournament from this point on:
1) Wisconsin wins it all
Offensive basketball is set back four decades. Bo Ryan becomes an even bigger know-it-all. And those uniforms, with the numbers visible from Mars and no names on the back ...
Pat Forde doesn't need to see any more of this.
Wasn't there a resolution passed in 2000, after Dick Bennett's squad scored 41 points in a national semifinal, prohibiting the Badgers' return to the Final Four? Even with a different coach, Wisconsin is still hard to watch, having scored more than 64 points just once in its last nine games.
Enjoying the Wisconsin-North Carolina State game Friday will be a chore. First team to 50 might win that one in a catatonic Carrier Dome. And if the Badgers do win, it could derail a possible North Carolina-N.C. State regional final, which would be fun simply for all the pressure heaped on the Tar Heels.
2) Duke-Kentucky III is pre-empted by Utah-Michigan State
Everyone remembers the two regional final classics of the 1990s the Christian Laettner shot in 1992 and the less-heralded Kentucky comeback in '98. What people don't remember are the other times post-Laettner that the selection committee unsuccessfully tried to pit the Blue Devils and Wildcats.
In 1994, Duke was a No. 2 seed and Kentucky a No. 3, but the Wildcats were stunned in the second round by Marquette. In 2001, the committee outdid itself, pointing the two toward a regional final in Philadelphia (site of the '92 game), but USC upset Kentucky in the Sweet 16.
It would be another swell matchup this time around. Failing that, CBS would take either of the two as regional-final consolation prizes. It likely would be less pleased by Utes-Spartans.
Utah does have Andrew Bogut as a drawing card, and Michigan State does have Tom Izzo. But Ray Giacoletti could spend all day on a street corner in Austin without being recognized as the coach of the Utes, and the Spartans' players have an odd dearth of charisma.
3) West Virginia wins in Albuquerque
John Beilein is a terrific coach who has literally worked his way up on every level of the game: high school; junior college; Divisions III, II and I. His teams can be fun to watch. But if his Mountaineers advance further than they have at any time since the Jerry West days, he'd be killing off some quality story lines.
Beating Bob Knight in the Sweet 16 would be good for those who like to smile at a basketball game, since the sport is supposed to be fun and it never is with The General. And it might put a sock in Knight's mouth when it comes to ripping Indiana and Mike Davis five years after the fact. But Knight's presence demands attention, provokes fascination and spurs debate. John Beilein's presence would do none of those things.
It would also derail a delicious possibility: Knight vs. Rick Pitino in the regional final. Nine Final Fours and four national titles between them, and each seeking to cap off the rebuilding process at a new school. Last time they met, at Indiana and Kentucky, respectively, Pitino wiped the floor with Knight, 99-65.
4. Wisconsin-Milwaukee spoils the setup in Chi-town
Everybody loves Cinderella, especially when Cinderella plays an entertaining style like the Panthers'. But this is generally the time when the low-profile, hyphenated urban schools from off-brand leagues check out, leaving the national championship to the big boys. (North Carolina-Charlotte being the last Final Four exception, in 1977.)
As much fun as it might be to see Bruce Pearl stick it to the grudge-holding Illinois fans, it wouldn't do much good for the tourney's ratings. The Illini and Tobacco Road are driving this bus right now, and CBS doesn't want it driven straight into the Chicago River. (At least not until the regional final, when Illinois vs. either Arizona or Oklahoma State would be sensational.)
Disappointment or anticlimax or both lurks in every region, waiting to take down a developing story. And given the history of the tournament, it's likely to happen somewhere.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.