Final Four field driven by top seeds' star power

Analysis

March 26, 2007|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun reporter

Two weeks after the NCAA made Florida the favorite to repeat as national champion, nothing has changed.

A generation after his father made history, John Thompson III has recorded more.

There will be gravitas aplenty at the 2007 Final Four in Atlanta, as the Gators have lived up to their overall No. 1 seed and kept alive their quest to become the first repeat NCAA champion in 15 years.

Joakim Noah, the Most Outstanding Player from the 2006 Final Four, and four other starters are back from the Florida team that beat UCLA in last year's championship game. Arron Afflalo and the Bruins get a rematch Saturday in the semifinals.

The first semifinal, Georgetown against Ohio State, matches premier big men and hot young coaches.

Thompson is the first son of a Final Four coach to take a team there. His father became the first African-American to coach an NCAA champion in 1984, when the Hoyas got their only title.

If you want to see Cinderella, rent the DVD. If you want proven names, the Associated Press had Florida, UCLA, Ohio State and Georgetown ranked Nos. 1, 6, 7 and 8, respectively, in the preseason.

Last year's Final Four famously included a No. 11 seed, George Mason. With a pair of No. 1s in Florida and Ohio State and a pair of No. 2s in Georgetown and UCLA, this group's seeds total 6. There hasn't been a more high-powered Final Four since 1993, when it consisted of three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2.

It's the first Final Four since 1998 with teams from four conferences. For the second straight year, there is none from the Atlantic Coast Conference, the first such drought since 1979 and '80.

Georgetown vs. OSU

The Buckeyes, who won their only title in 1960 and made their last Final Four appearance in 1999, have a 21-game win streak and Greg Oden, a 7-foot freshman who overpowered Memphis in the South final and could be the No. 1 selection in the NBA draft in three months.

The Hoyas have won 19 of their past 20 behind 7-2 Roy Hibbert and Big East Player of the Year Jeff Green. Georgetown is in the Final Four for the first time since 1985, when its star was Patrick Ewing. Now his son is the Hoyas' top reserve.

Georgetown's top freshman is DaJuan Summers, a 6-8 forward out of McDonogh. Another top rookie for Ohio State coach Thad Matta is point guard Mike Conley Jr., who adds to the game's scrapbook feel. His father won the triple jump at the 1992 Olympics.

Both teams grind it out in the half court and don't panic when they're behind. Ohio State came back on Xavier and Tennessee, Georgetown against Boston College and then North Carolina in the East.

The ACC made history from 2001 to '05, with three different champions in a five-year period. With Syracuse winning in 2003 and Connecticut in '04, the Hoyas could make the Big East the second league with that distinctive depth.

Florida vs. UCLA

Maryland, in 2002, was the last Final Four team to return to the game's showcase before last year's finalists made their way back.

Now, the Bruins hope their rematch with the Gators echoes the last similar do-over, from 1991.

Duke was routed by eventual champion Nevada-Las Vegas in the 1990 semifinals. A year later, the Blue Devils avenged that loss with the tightest of their Final Four wins during back-to-back title runs in 1991 and'92.

Since Duke's repeat, Florida is the fourth defending champion to get back to the Final Four. Arkansas and Kentucky lost in the 1995 and '97 finals, respectively, and Michigan State was stopped in the 2001 semifinals.

Billy Donovan's Florida team won its tournament opener by 43, rose up in the second half against Purdue and Butler and got a big game from three-point specialist Lee Humphrey against Oregon in the Midwest final.

UCLA coach Ben Howland remembers Humphrey well, as he personally outscored the Bruins beyond the arc in last year's title game, a 16-point win for the Gators.

That UCLA team relied on Jordan Farmar, who left early for the NBA. Darren Collison moved into his spot, and Afflalo became the Pacific-10 Player of the Year. Afflalo had been in a shooting slump before he made Kansas pay in the West final.

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

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The Sun's Paul McMullen reports on the NCAA men's tournament. baltimoresun.com/mcmadness

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