Final Four sets an exotic, spicy table, but a feast it isn't

March 31, 2000|By John Eisenberg

Worried that a Final Four lacking the usual star power won't grab your attention this weekend? Relax. There are all sorts of ways to enhance your enjoyment of the games.

Every time ultra-deliberate Wisconsin grabs a rebound and starts a possession, for instance, you can open your favorite Russian novel, read a chapter and still look up in time to see the Badgers take the shot at the end of the possession.

How often can you read a classic and watch a "classic" at the same time?

And if you don't want to do that, just sit back and pretend you're getting a free rental of "Hoosiers," the basketball movie set in the 1950s. Can't pass up that deal.

Another way to add enjoyment to the event would be to play that favorite basketball parlor game, "Who Wants to be Incredibly Wrong?"

Here's how you play: Everyone in the room scotch-tapes together their office-pool brackets they tore up after the second round, and then you take turns confessing where you had eighth-seeded North Carolina, eighth-seeded Wisconsin and fifth-seeded Florida going out. Whoever had them losing the earliest has to put on bowling shoes and imitate Dick Vitale. Zany fun!

(In the interest of full disclosure, I had Carolina losing to Stanford and Wisconsin losing to Arizona in the second round, and Florida losing to Duke in the Sweet 16. Got all three wrong. Top that.)

Another way to pass the time -- and this idea is heartily recommended no matter how good or bad the games are -- is have everyone in the room close their eyes and think about how annoyed Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and the smug Duke fans are because their sainted Blue Devils are out and an inferior Carolina team with 13 losses is still in.

Talk about whopping good fun.

Of course, the Final Four itself will have to sustain your interest to some degree, and there's concern at CBS because the field has boiled down to a team that finished third in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a team that tied for sixth in the Big Ten, a team that was seeded third in the Southeast Conference tournament -- and heavily favored Michigan State.

One sirloin steak and a lot of ground chuck, basically.

It's what happens when you get a few too many upsets in the NCAA tournament, as much as we love watching them.

Sure, it's a pleasant change from the typical drumbeat of favorites mauling everyone on the way to the final rounds. There's nothing wrong with a little anarchy now and then, even if it messes up your brackets. (If you had Florida, Wisconsin or Carolina getting this far, please, don't brag. You're just dumb and lucky, that's all, as opposed to dumb and unlucky.)

But as appealing as underdogs are, let's face it, a final foursome with a combined 40 losses isn't nearly as compelling as a field of powerhouses and a weekend of games not to be missed.

One year of it is fine. No problem. But any more and the Final Four might start to get, well, a little less interesting.

Not that it's a slam-dunk certainty that Michigan State will just motor through Wisconsin and the Florida-North Carolina winner on the way to the school's first NCAA title since Magic Johnson's days.

That's what should happen, of course, with the Spartans clearly the best team left standing, but if there's any lesson in the first two weekends of the tournament, it's that what should happen often doesn't.

The fact that a lamentable North Carolina team survived its first-round game with Missouri, let alone three more, is evidence of that.

Things were so bad for the Tar Heels in late January that their fans stormed the court in Chapel Hill after a win over a Maryland team with a 2-3 record in the ACC. Talk about lowering your standards. The Heels had lost four in a row before the game and one fan carried a sign saying, "Win One."

Things got only marginally better after that, as the Heels finished with an 18-13 record and received one of the last bids to the NCAA tournament.

Their surprising run to Indianapolis is owed to a renewed sense of purpose on defense. Basically, the Tar Heels decided to start trying. With their blue-chip talent, that's significant.

And with senior point guard Ed Cota set to play in -- surprise -- his third Final Four, don't underestimate the power of pedigree, of a team having the ultimate as a goal, not a dream.

Here's betting the Tar Heels beat Florida in their semifinal, even though the Gators look better on paper.

That would push them to a title game against, probably, Michigan State, which should handle Wisconsin in the other semifinal, having already beaten the Badgers three times this season -- by 17 points at Wisconsin just a few weeks ago.

The Spartans also already have beaten Carolina this year -- by 10 points in Chapel Hill on Dec. 1.

Make it by 13 in the championship game Monday night.

Better bring that Russian novel if you don't finish it Saturday.

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