With surprise teams, Final Four not top-heavy

Analysis

Ncaa Tournament

March 27, 2006|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The nation's two premier conferences are missing. The Southeastern is back, along with the greatest dynasty in the history of the NCAA tournament and a program that had no national recognition two weeks ago.

The Final Four hasn't seen a quartet like this since 1980, when not a single No. 1 seed got to Indianapolis. That was the first season for the Big East, and the last time the Final Four did not include a team from either it or the Atlantic Coast Conference. The ACC, which had a Final Four team in 15 of the past 17 seasons, didn't get one to the Elite Eight this time.

Market Square Arena was the setting then. This week the Final Four returns to Indianapolis, where the RCA Dome will have two pairings that no one could have envisioned when practice began last October.

FOR THE RECORD - A Sports section article yesterday that analyzed the NCAA Final Four incorrectly stated that Kentucky is the only Southeastern Conference school to win the men's national title in basketball. Arkansas won the championship in 1994.
The Sun regrets the errors.

George Mason, the biggest surprise ever to make the Final Four, will meet Florida in the first semifinal, one that matches two teams efficient at the offensive end. In the April Fool's Day nightcap, UCLA and LSU will match up their defensive prowess.

LSU will be attempting to become the youngest team ever to win a championship. It's the most inexperienced Final Four team since Michigan's Fab Five reached the 1992 final.

Kentucky is the only SEC team ever to win an NCAA title, but next Monday could bring an all-SEC final. The conference last had a Final Four team in 2000, when Florida lost to Michigan State in the title game, at the RCA Dome no less.

That Final Four included a pair of No. 8 seeds. This one includes a 2 (UCLA), 3 (Florida), 4 (LSU) and George Mason, an 11 that knocked off Connecticut in what is considered the biggest regional final upset in tournament history.

The Patriots have five starters from Maryland, UCLA works SoCal, LSU leans even more strongly on homegrown talent and Florida has an international roster.

A breakdown of the semifinals:

George Mason-Florida

Florida led the nation in field-goal percentage, and George Mason was nearly as sharp at the offensive end. After fending off Connecticut, the Patriots won't be daunted by a team that's nearly as big and just as athletic as the Huskies.

Billy Donovan's Gators, who won their first 17 games, were supposed to be in a rebuilding mode, but the sophomore class blossomed. Joakim Noah, son of tennis great Yannick, runs the floor well at 6 feet 11 and averages 14.0 points and 6.8 rebounds. Guard Taurean Green scores 13.4 per game and 6-9 Al Horford goes inside for 11.4 and 7.2 rebounds per game.

The past four NCAA champions got help from Baltimore, and George Mason will try to continue that streak. The Patriots, who weren't even the undisputed best in the Colonial Athletic Association, will most likely check Noah with Will Thomas, and Horford with Jai Lewis.

LSU-UCLA

First one to 60 wins.

This UCLA team bears no resemblance to the John Wooden dynasty that won 10 championships between 1964 and '75, nor the dynamic Bruins team that ruled in 1995.

Ben Howland, who rebuilt Pittsburgh, moved back west in 2003 and taught local recruits how to defend. The Bruins have won 11 straight. In that stretch, one opponent scored as many as 60 points, and Saturday's win over Memphis was the lowest scoring regional final in the shot-clock era.

The Pac-10 regular-season and tournament champions have a sharp perimeter and keep getting better inside. The three most productive players are sophomores. Point guard Jordan Farmar is good for 13.6 points and 5.2 assists per game, Arron Afflalo has a team-high 16.2 average and wing Josh Shipp gets 11.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.

LSU's Glen Davis, aka "Big Baby," outplayed Duke's Shelden Williams and Texas' LaMarcus Aldridge in the Atlanta Regional, but no one has shot up the NBA draft charts faster than Tyrus Thomas, a 6-9 freshman with hops who averages 12.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Davis, with averages of 18.6 and 9.8, leads in both categories.

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

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