The absence of a Cinderella is the story of this Sweet 16

Ncaa Tournament

March 19, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Forty-nine down, 16 left. And nary a Cinderella among them. It's nice to see the teams ranked as the best in college basketball advance, pretty much en masse, in the NCAA men's tournament. But it's also kind of a drag.

The question going into the tournament was, "Who will be this year's George Mason?" And the answer appears to be, "Nobody."

One could have asked Jim Larranaga himself ... actually, The New York Times did. He was quoted yesterday saying, "I don't think there will ever be another George Mason because you can only do something one time."

For a lot of reasons, many are conceding that yes, that was a once-in-a-generation happening, a team coming out of nowhere, from a No. 11 seeding, to knock off three former national champions - including the top seed in its regional - and reach the Final Four. No team will do that in 2007. That was sealed yesterday, but the signs emerged on the first day.

Still alive are all four No. 1 seeds and three No. 2s. That includes the top four seeds in the West and four of the top five in the South, as well as little-known Butler in the Midwest. But if you don't know Butler by now, you haven't been paying attention, at all, this season, and Gary Williams ("A team in the Top 25 all season isn't a mid-major") would like a word with you.

Same for Southern Illinois, from the conference that heaved itself into our consciousness last March, the Missouri Valley. Those, respectively, are No. 5 and No. 4 seeds. Doesn't pass the Cinderella test.

Double-digit seeds? Unknown qualifiers from one-bid conferences? One of the unwashed masses collectively labeled as "mid-majors"? Get outta here, and we mean that literally.

It was Turn Back the Clock Week - to 2005.

This is not to say the first two rounds have not been entertaining, with two No. 1s, Ohio State and defending champ Florida, getting serious threats, and Duke getting bounced on the first day, among other pleasures.

But the first two examples were only threats, and Duke simply lost to a better team, regardless of seedings. The few teams that lost to lower seeds in the first two rounds, in fact, could hardly claim to have suffered a shock, including a No. 2, Wisconsin, getting knocked out by a No. 7, Nevada-Las Vegas, yesterday.

Maryland lost to a lower-seeded team from the Horizon League on Saturday, but Maryland was a legit No. 4 and Butler an equally legit No. 5, whether it was inexplicably off someone's radar or not.

Sorry, Butler, you're not sneaking up on anyone. You're no George Mason. Neither are you, UNLV. C'mon, Tark the Shark and the Larry Johnson-Greg Anthony national champs are still too fresh in our memories. Plus, if the NBA uses your home court to host All-Star Weekend, you're hardly a struggling up-and-comer.

In that sense, after the extra-strength dose of Madness last year, this tournament is a letdown. Excellence is great, but the endless allure of the tournament is the upsets. The ante has been raised on that.

A big myth was exploded last year when Mason made its run - everybody thought every round of the tournament was riddled with Davids knocking off Goliaths all the way down the line, when in fact the Davids overwhelmingly get theirs before the round of 16. Until last year, that is.

Part of the fallout from that is no one's sure who's supposed to be the underdogs anymore. Nobody wants to be called "mid-major" anymore, and everybody believes they can knock off anybody else. After the field was unveiled a week ago, the coaches of Davidson and Winthrop claimed they were being slighted by, respectively, their No. 13 and No. 11 seedings. And they were proved right, by the way Davidson played against Maryland (fought the Terps to the final minutes) and Winthrop against Notre Dame (beat the Irish handily).

Basically, if everybody is a Goliath, then who's left to be David?

That's going to be a hard role to fill, because the real Goliaths are no longer playing around and letting the presumed lesser opponents sucker-punch them out of the tournament, either before the draw or after play begins. If they still do that, they might want to talk to Jim Boeheim, of 2003 national champ Syracuse, who didn't even get in, or the three coaches with seven titles among them (Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, Lute Olson) who went down in the first round.

But any coach today who is not clued in to how to get into and out of the tournament with his reputation intact deserves what he gets. Coaches know they have to schedule better. They have to play tough teams on the road. They have to recruit, and not let the Stephen Currys and A.J. Graveses of the world fall to some other school and enter March with the subsequent chip on their shoulders.

And, of course, they have to win their way in. "The men's basketball tournament is the toughest NCAA sport to qualify for," Williams said Saturday after the Terps' second-round loss in Buffalo. It's a valid point. That means last season was a deviation, and this season is a market correction of sorts.

And a year with no Cinderellas. No Davids. No George Mason.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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