Washington Regional

Ncaa Tournament

March 13, 2006|By PAUL MCMULLEN

GOING TO INDIANAPOLIS

Tennessee picked the wrong time to slump. North Carolina is too inexperienced. It's a year too late for Illinois and Washington, and Michigan State has been spotty the last month. The door is wide open for Connecticut to blow through Philadelphia and the MCI Center and get to its third Final Four in eight years. The Huskies have Rudy Gay and the nation's most talented front line, two good spot-up shooters and a slick point guard in Marcus Williams. If they don't have an attitude after getting bumped out of the Big East tournament early, they never will.

TEAM ON THE RISE

North Carolina went to Maryland in early February 3-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and as much a candidate for the NIT as it was to defend its NCAA title. The precocious Tar Heels are 11-2 in their last 13, and playing fast and loose, the way Roy Williams likes it. North Carolina won at Duke on Senior Night, and the only thing it's failed to do is solve Boston College.

TEAM ON THE DECLINE

Picked to finish fifth in the SEC East, Tennessee was a delightful surprise in December, when it went to Austin and blew out Texas. The Volunteers won their division for first-year coach Bruce Pearl, but the past few weeks haven't been pretty. Tennessee is 2-4 in its past six games, and two players in the program were arrested on drug charges.

CINDERELLA STORY

Jeff Bzdelik got his first break in the coaching business two decades ago, when he gave UMBC its best moments in Division I. He was renowned as an NBA assistant and worked wonders as the Denver Nuggets boss. When Bzdelik lost that job, he had little taste for uprooting his family, and was happy to go down the interstate to the Air Force Academy. The reward was a surprise at-large bid for the Falcons, who will try to slow down Illinois in San Diego Thursday.

PRIME-TIME PLAYER

Connecticut is still waiting for Rudy Gay to assert himself. Dee Brown has played in a Final Four, but misses too many shots. Tyler Hansbrough, meanwhile, has had a remarkable season for North Carolina, averaging 19.1 points on 57.8 percent shooting and 7.8 rebounds. He's relentless, and the main reason the Tar Heels have exceeded expectations in a season in which they had to replace their top seven scorers.

UNDERRATED PLAYER

There are plenty of candidates here. Folks in the East know little about Utah State's Nate Harris, but he's a star in the Western Athletic Conference. Jai Lewis, a bullish senior from Aberdeen, is George Mason's best hope for an upset of Michigan State. James Augustine, seeking to make amends for his foul-troubled disappearance from the 2005 title game, never gets his due for Illinois.

COACHING EDGE

Winthrop's Gregg Marshall is ready for bigger things. Regardless of the personnel, all Bruce Weber does is win. Tom Izzo, Tubby Smith and Roy Williams all have NCAA rings, but Jim Calhoun has two. One more and he would become only the third active coach, besides Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski, with three. When the Huskies have the horses, they usually win.

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