Tuesday, April 1, 2003

Season of parity evident in Final Four

Kansas, 'Cuse could play for crown

The Associated Press

Kentucky and Arizona were supposed to be playing Saturday night, a semifinal matchup that had all the makings of a championship game.

Instead, the NCAA Tournament favorites will be watching just like the rest of the country.

In this season of parity, the Final Four has turned into a stage for coaches looking for a first national title and for stars showing off for a national audience. New Orleans always has provided drama as host of the Final Four, and this time should be no different.

If it's a chance to make up for a heartbreaking loss that grabs you, Syracuse and coach Jim Boeheim would be the pick. The Orangemen reached the title game in the Superdome in 1987, only to lose to Indiana on a jumper by Keith Smart in the final seconds.

If it's a coach on the rise you want, check out Marquette's Tom Crean. If it's seeing a coach considered the best never to win it all finally cut down the nets, keep an eye on Kansas' Roy Williams.

Three of the teams knocked off a No. 1 seed in the regional final to advance, none more impressive than Marquette's thrashing of top-ranked Kentucky, which ended the Wildcats' 26-game winning streak.

Texas was the only top-seeded team to survive, and the Longhorns have to like the fact that the last four national champions were all No. 1 seeds.

Marquette vs. Kansas

The Golden Eagles come in off the great win over Kentucky, and Dwyane Wade comes in off only the third triple-double in NCAA Tournament history.

Wade, considered one of the country's best players all season, became a household name with his performance in the tournament. His teammates also have stepped it up: Robert Jackson on the inside and Travis Diener and Steve Novak on the outside. Crean is familiar with being around the Final Four. He was an assistant to Michigan State's Tom Izzo when the Spartans won it all in 2000.

Kansas' victory over Arizona was entertaining , , and it moved the Jayhawks to the Final Four for a second straight year.

Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich were the stars of the team that lost to Maryland in the semifinals last year. They're back, and each had a game last weekend in which they carried the team. Williams' fourth trip with Kansas to the Final Four may be his most satisfying.

PICK: Wade is great, but Kansas showed it will ride either of its stars. It will be Collison's turn again, and he'll run the Jayhawks to an up-tempo victory.

Texas vs. Syracuse

T.J. Ford makes Texas go, and he has the Longhorns in the Final Four for the first time since 1947. There aren't many players with Ford's speed and ability to penetrate. And that's just what he'll have to do against Syracuse's 2-3 zone.

The Longhorns will benefit from having almost a week to prepare for the zone that so disrupted Oklahoma in the regional final. Coach Rick Barnes saw it when he was coaching Providence in the Big East.

The Longhorns also have started to develop a much deeper rotation, and that should help take the scoring pressure off Ford.

Carmelo Anthony certainly stoked the Syracuse faithful when he said this was his first, and hopefully not last, Final Four. Even if this is his only NCAA Tournament before heading to the NBA, he showed his star quality throughout.

But it's Boeheim's zone defense - and the fact the back line is one of the biggest and most athletic in the country - that makes the Orangemen a tough matchup in a tournament. Syracuse is the youngest team still playing. Anthony is one of three freshmen who play key roles.

PICK: Even though most of the positives seem to point in Texas' direction, Anthony is so good and so clutch that it would be tough to go against him getting Boeheim to a third national championship game.

Men's Final Four


At Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans

TV: Ch. 12, 7.

• Marquette vs. Kansas, 6:05 p.m.

• Syracuse vs. Texas, 8:35 p.m.

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