Finalists arrive, but thrill is gone

Bracket busters produce semifinal matchups gone to seed

March 27, 2000|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Welcome to the Final Bore.

The upsets in the NCAA men's basketball tournament may have captured the nation's attention and anger as ripped brackets littered office floors. But now that the excitement has settled, look what's left for the Final Four in Indianapolis: Michigan State, Florida, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Is anyone really excited to watch the Spartans paired with the Good, the Drab and the Once-Struggling?

Michigan State (30-7) has the flash and the No. 1 chip on its shoulders. Florida (28-7) brings a frantic press, yet not much of a following, and this racehorse needed a last-second shot by Mike Miller to edge Butler in the first round.

But Wisconsin? The Badgers (22-13), who were one game over .500 on Feb. 5, have set the game back 50 years by testing teams' patience more than their athleticism with a grind-it-out style.

And North Carolina? The Tar Heels (22-13) have tradition, but the road to their NCAA-record 15th Final Four had plenty of potholes. They were talking about snubbing a National Invitation Tournament bid just three weeks ago, and their four victories in the NCAA tournament represent their longest winning streak of the season.

"To be honest, I never thought we could get to the Final Four," said Badgers guard Jon Bryant, a Division II transfer whose hot three-point shooting has carried Wisconsin. "I am in awe. Who would have thought this was possible?"

Not the bracketologists. The trendy picks like Arizona, St. John's and Temple were sitting home watching this week's games, and Duke bowed out before the weekend.

And not CBS, which owns the broadcasting rights. But given the regional finals, the network must have given a sigh of relief when ratings magnets Michigan State and North Carolina escaped instead of small-market schools like Iowa State and Tulsa.

A championship final between Michigan State and Florida would pique interest again, but an upset by one of the long shots could make the final anticlimactic.

So, if nothing else, this tournament is historic by its precedents alone.

Since the NCAA started its seedings 21 years ago, only 12 teams with seeds higher than four had reached the Final Four previously. This year, three of the four semifinalists have seeds higher than four, with fifth-seeded Florida and eighth seeds Wisconsin and North Carolina making it to the RCA Dome.

Plus, no team had advanced to the national semifinals with more than 12 losses since the NCAA tournament began in 1939. This year, the Badgers and the Tar Heels raised that bar for regular-season mediocrity.

They are the lowest seeds in the Final Four since No. 11 Louisiana State in 1986 and the first No. 8 seeds here since Villanova ran the table for the 1985 national championship.

"At the beginning of the year, we felt that we were arguably one of the best four teams in the nation," Carolina center Brendan Haywood said. "There was a stretch when we weren't playing good defense. We knew if we did the things that Coach [Bill] Guthridge stressed, we could get to the Final Four."

The two semifinal games contrast in styles and familiarity.

In the first game, Michigan State has already pulled a hat trick on Wisconsin, beating the Badgers three times this season. The Big Ten champion is the only team to defeat the Badgers since Feb. 2.

Though many have credited Wisconsin's tournament run to its defense, the Badgers fear Michigan State's defenders more than its finishing ability and perimeter shooting. The Spartans have limited Wisconsin to an average of 48 points in the three meetings.

"I think they are one of the premier teams defensively," Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett said. "I think that gets talked about the least with Michigan State."

The Spartans showcased that defense in Auburn Hills, Mich., outscoring Syracuse and Iowa State by a combined 35-3 in the final five minutes to stage the tournament's best two comebacks.

The only surviving top seed also has an advantage in experience, with four starters entering their second straight Final Four. It's been 59 years since Wisconsin's last appearance in the national semifinals, and the NIT was the more prestigious tournament then.

2; "We knew if we did the things that Coach [Bill] Guthridge stressed, we could get to the Final Four." Brendan Haywood, North Carolina center

Still, the Spartans understand how difficult it will be to defeat a team for a fourth time in seven weeks.

"We got ready to call out a play, and they called it out with us," Michigan State point guard Mateen Cleaves said. "That makes it tough."

The other semifinal -- Florida and North Carolina -- pits two schools that haven't met since 1966.

It matches Florida coach Billy Donovan against Carolina's Guthridge. In other words, it's Billy the Kid vs. Uncle Bill.

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