Pool is shot, but don't dive into parity line

April 01, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's the hot new theory in college basketball. Parity. Volatility. Liberty and justice for all.

Judging from the teams at the Final Four -- a No. 1 seed, a No. 5 and two No. 8s -- many of the game's leading minds believe that the NCAA men's tourna- ment will never be the same.

"There is more parity," former Georgetown coach John Thompson said yesterday. "I think it's going to be like this from now on."

No question, the stock market has been easier to figure out than this year's tournament. Bracketville is located in the state of anarchy.

But is the sport truly as upside down as it appears?

Not if you consider that Florida, North Carolina and Michigan State all went to Final Fours in the '90s, and all were preseason top 10 selections.

The only aberration here is Wisconsin, a No. 8 seed that wins with a deliberate, defensive style that suffocates opponents and evokes memories of Villanova in 1985.

Michigan State proved a legitimate No. 1. Florida was a No. 5 largely as a result of its quarterfinal loss to Auburn in the Southeast Conference tournament. North Carolina earned its No. 8 by tanking virtually the entire regular season.

Everyone loves Bill Guth- ridge, one of the nicest men you'll ever meet, and a better coach than people think.

But if Carolina were a racehorse, there'd be an investigation.

A Carolina-Wisconsin final would feature teams with a combined 26 losses -- 23 more than the combined total of last year's finalists, Duke and Connecticut.

A Florida-Wisconsin final would be a ratings nightmare for CBS, even though it could evolve into a classic matchup of contrasting styles.

Even the expected Florida-Michigan State final would lack the sizzle normally associated with Monday night, for neither is a traditional power.

Television ratings are down, and CBS likely is in a panic, with its $6 billion contract set to begin in 2003.

America loves plucky underdogs. America also loves prohibitive favorites.

At its best, the NCAA tournament offers both.

There will never be another college basketball dynasty like UCLA. There might never be a team that wins back-to-back titles, as Duke did in '91 and '92, or makes three straight champion- ship-game appearances, as Kentucky did from '96 to '98.

Early NBA defections level the playing field. Television gives exposure to programs that once fought for publicity. Players come from everywhere -- one Florida star (Brett Nelson) is from St. Albans, W.Va.; another (Mike Miller) is from Mitchell, S.D.

"The basketball world at the collegiate level has gotten smaller," Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett said. "I think there's less difference between the haves and have-nots than ever before, because of all the exposure. Kids now from all places get to play, go to camps, get in the gyms in the summer, get good coaching."

The Gonzagas of the world lend credence to Bennett's hypothesis, and even Florida needed a first-round buzzer-beater to survive Butler. But much as the network boys deserve to squirm, they probably can relax.

This tournament still looks like the exception, and not the rule.

Top-ranked Cincinnati lost National Player of the Year candidate Kenyon Martin before Selection Sunday. Arizona, the No. 1 seed in the West, played without center Loren Woods. Stanford, the No. 1 seed in the South, entered the tournament reeling.

"It's so difficult to determine who the No. 1 seeds are," said Dan Bonner, an analyst with ESPN and Jefferson-Pilot. "Looking back on it now, Iowa State probably should have been a No. 1 seed. But it's so difficult to distinguish among the top 16 teams."

That's where the parity is -- at the top. The increased reliance on young players adds to the tournament's unpredictability. But players who stay in school mature, enabling teams like Michigan State to reach back-to-back Final Fours.

Even the impact of the NBA defections is overstated. The losses of Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse in '95, then Vince Carter and Antwan Jamison in '98, haven't prevented Carolina from reaching three of the past four Final Fours.

The preseason favorites next season should all be familiar -- Duke, Arizona, North Carolina, Florida if Miller stays, maybe even Michigan State, considering the strength of its recruiting class. (Maryland? The return of Terence Morris should make the Terps a Top 10 power, but hold all bets in March.)

The 2001 tournament will feature its usual share of upsets, but only a year ago, three No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four. Indeed, the trend since the NCAA began seeding the field in 1979 is unmistakable.

Any student-athlete could do the math: When you add the seeds of these Final Four teams together (1, 5, 8 and 8), you get the highest total in seedings history (22). But if Carolina had played like Carolina all season, it would have drawn a higher seed, and reduced the number considerably.

Only once before did the total of the Final Four seeds exceed 15 -- in 1980, when the teams were No. 8 UCLA, No. 6 Purdue, No. 5 Iowa and No. 2 Louisville. Over the past 21 years, the average total is 10.4. The past three years, it was 7, 9 and 7.

The parity theory is not without merit, but let's not probe any deeper trying to explain the inexplicable.

One year doesn't qualify as a trend.

One year qualifies as an aberration.

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