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In an expanded field, little dramas abound

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001

Maybe the East is tougher, with a Duke-Kentucky-Boston College-UCLA order of merit, but the Florida Gators are in the most intriguing NCAA mix.

Billy Donovan's wounded G-Men botched a No. 1 seed, taking a two-step Big Dance tumble and casting in a region that sizzles with marque magnetism, delightful subplots and stimulating personal agendas.

Above all, there's South top stud Michigan State, conqueror of Florida in last year's NCAA final, but also North Carolina, a potential top seed whose late-season flameouts came to an embarrassing 79-53 apex versus neighbor rival Duke in the ACC tournament.

If the Gators don't snooze against Western Kentucky in their New Orleans opener, old Providence point-guard darling Donovan from March Madnesses past could be matched with his alma mater if the Friars survive Penn State.

Dixie is loaded ...

There'll be a spirited dose of Jacksonville native John Chaney who keeps coaching Temple to prominence, plus the continuing resurgence of a bald and controversial towel chewer, Jerry Tarkanian, born again in post-UNLV life as a national threat at Fresno State.

Also, the South gets a touch of Ivy League class with Princeton, master of slowdown hoops, as well as Big 12 champ Oklahoma and exuberant Gonzaga, the little school from the Washington outback that produced NBA icon John Stockton and in 1998 gave the Gators a stunning NCAA heave-ho.

Hold it! Let's go no further without christening the "Big Dance Wallflower Classic." A new NCAA deal that allows squeezing in a 65th tournament school.

We're talking the Northwestern State Demons, from a Louisiana place called Natchitoches, heading for a Tuesday night before-first-round hackoff with Winthrop, the dribbling pride of Rock Hill, S.C.

Bottom seeds, or worse.

C'mon, big shots, it's part of the diverse charm that includes Duke playing no-chance Monmouth, Stanford starting with outclassed UNC-Greensboro, Iowa State heading for a hammering of Hampton and Midwest bracket boss Illinois breathlessly awaiting the survivor of Northwestern State-Winthrop.

We may chuckle, but it mightily thrills those involved, just to be among the 65. Still, for the Winthrop-Northwestern State whopper, scheduled at a neutral and obviously oblivious locale -- Dayton, Ohio -- plenty of good seats are still available. TV coverage will be on TNN, because the TV Food Network and Home and Garden Television had previous commitments.

I'm picking the Demons, not because they once were Piedmont neighbors of the fallen Jim Bakker evangelical theme park but due to the Louisiana outfit having contested the Arkansas Razorbacks in the regular season and being edged 115-47. My abilities to name Final Four honorees rank just ahead of my touch with the Sweet Six in the Florida Lottery, but I keep buying $1 chances on Wednesdays and Fridays and will take another shot at predicting who will achieve America's most captivating sports happening, just 19 nights away in Minneapolis.

Mizell's stabs: Duke, Maryland, Arizona, Michigan State.

Speaking of plots, how about Charles "Lefty" Driesell, formerly of Davidson-Maryland-James Madison, coaching Georgia State into the NCAA Tournament?

Two others have accomplished the bounce-around feat: Eddie Sutton, now of tragedy-ridden Oklahoma State, and former UCLA national champion Jim Harrick, who makes it a personal four on the Big Dance floor with the Georgia Bulldogs.

Oh, the Left-hander must be sneaking a peek at the full West bracket, being aware that a G-State upset of Wisconsin in the first round likely would put Driesell against the Terps.

Lefty had stout accomplishments at Maryland before taking a professional plunge after Len Bias, his best player ever and No. 1 draft pick of the Boston Celtics, died after problems with drugs.

Cutdowns come in a hurry, with 75.38 percent of the NCAA field -- all but 16 of the 65 aspirants -- to be erased by Sunday night.

After that, the legit Final Four contenders get to cooking. But there is unique fascination in the Big Dance's multidimensional early acts.

Somewhere, a splattering shocker is apt to occur. History says so. If there were a fancy prize, say, four front-row seats and an all-expenses journey to the Metrodome for the final weekend, which school from among the 13-and-higher seeds would you pick for an upset?

Here's mine:

Winthrop over ...

Nah, I jest. For real, if for fun, I'll say 13 seed Hofstra will do a startling first-round number on 11-time national champion UCLA.

Stop laughing, John Wooden.

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