Monday, March 19, 2001

NCAA surprise: Pac-10 has most survivors

By Mike Lopresti
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        With the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament come and gone, the world having discovered there is in fact a Hampton, could we offer a few toasts? Thanks.

        Here's to the West. There is something out there besides Bigfoot and rolling blackouts. College basketball, for instance.

        One-fourth of the field of 16 survivors hail from the Pac-10 — Arizona, UCLA, Southern California and Stanford. More than any other league. All the uppity-ups have fewer. The Big Ten with three, the ACC and SEC two.

        Most of the nation sleeps during most of the Pac-10 regular season. Time to wake up.

        Plus there's Gonzaga. Resident of Washington state. Never forget Gonzaga.

        Here's to the No. 1 seeds. Duke, Illinois, Michigan State and Stanford blew through the first two rounds like a cold front from Alberta.

        Here's to new faces. Of last year's final 16 teams, only four made it back. Michigan State, UCLA, Duke.

        And Gonzaga.

        Anyone else notice how that name keeps popping up?

        Here's to football schools, reborn in March. USC hadn't been to the Sweet 16 since 1954. Neither had Penn State. A lot of bowl games have been won and lost since then.

        Here's to the first round. A rollicking good time of plot twists.

        But Thursday and Friday used up almost all the drama. The second round went calmly, mostly. Of the 16 games, 11 were decided by at least 16 points.

        Here's to the traditional tournament powers who carry on. You know their names. Duke, Michigan State, Kentucky, UCLA, Gonzaga.

        Gonzaga? You bet your glass slipper.

        The Zags stormed to a third straight regional, and now have seven tournament victories the past three years.

        Just two teams have more. Duke and Michigan State.

        Gonzaga has long ceased being a cute little upstart. Gonzaga is a ruffian, 12th seed and all.

        Here's to good free throw shooting, which started going out with black and white television.

        The price for mishaps at the line can be high, and was.

        Tennessee went 7-for-18. Iowa State 6-for-16.

        Wisconsin, down one point to Georgia State with 3.2 seconds left, missed two.

        Virginia, ahead of Gonzaga with 21.4 seconds to go, missed the front end of a bonus. The Zags promptly scored the winning basket.

        Oklahoma missed one with 5.5 seconds left. Indiana State won in overtime.

        Clutch free throw shooting must now be appreciated as you appreciate a vanishing species of whale.

        Stanford for instance. The Cardinal hit all 10 free throws in the final 45 seconds to put down St. Joseph's.

        Where all this leaves us depends on the regional.

        The Midwest is right on target, dutifully following the script the NCAA committee sent it. Illinois, Arizona, Mississippi, Kansas. Illinois looks ferocious. But then so does Kansas. And so does Arizona.

        Meanwhile, the South has been taken over by refugees from the low seed area. Michigan State will try to get back to the Final Four through a gaggle of upstarts named Temple, Penn State and Gonzaga, which sounds like the upper bracket of the Maui Classic. Of the bunch, Temple seems the most dangerous, its matchup zone hard to prepare for in two days, as Michigan State would have to do.

        In the East, the countdown is on for a Duke-Kentucky regional, in the way one counts down to an important space launch.

        But for that to happen, the entire city of Los Angeles must be conquered. Duke against UCLA, Kentucky against USC.

        As for the West, Stanford eyes Maryland, but not before Cincinnati. Maryland eyes Stanford, but not before Georgetown, in a matchup of two schools a short subway ride apart who avoid one another during the season but can't now.

        See what the NCAA Tournament can do? Bring neighbors together, make basketball schools out of football schools.

        And spotlight Gonzaga. Always, it seems, Gonzaga.

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