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NCAA finds its deeper seeds are growing stronger

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2000

You knew it all the time, right?

On a madcap Monday night in Indianapolis, college basketball's national championship game could wind up matching ... Gonzaga and Tulsa.

Smirkers beware.

Three-quarters of the NCAA's 64 teams are eliminated, including shocked souls from Stanford, St. John's, Temple, Cincinnati and Ohio State.

Among 16 sweet survivors, the most exotic but now-anything-but-non-sensical possibility for the RCA Dome is a Zags-Golden Hurricane final.

Who'da thunk?

All along, a Michigan State-Duke last tango seemed the bet of lowest risk for April 3, but a Big Dance opening weekend that teemed with upsets should have cured us of underselling Tulsa, Gonzaga and any of a dozen other stalkers of the Spartans and Blue Devils.

If everything had gone according to NCAA seedings, we'd now be down to the top four choices in each region. Only seven of the anointed 16 made it through. Most stunning among the outsiders are 10th seeds Gonzaga and Seton Hall.

It began slowly. Predictability was a first-round hallmark. In 32 games, the higher seed won 29 times. Gonzaga overturned Louisville, Seton Hall bounced Oregon and Pepperdine humiliated Bob Knight's Indiana.

Also eye-opening at the get-go were near-misses by Florida and Purdue, pulling out one-pointers against Butler and Dayton. Then the Gators played far better in wiping out Illinois and former UF coach Lon Kruger while the Boilermakers firmed up to dust Oklahoma.

In Round 2, the fun snowballed, if your nickname didn't happen to be Cardinal, Red Storm, Owls, Buckeyes or Bearcats. Nine of 16 games were won by lower seeds.

Why? Maybe it's the big-clout basketball schools losing too many standout players prematurely to the NBA, although Duke has beautifully survived the departure of four underclassmen.

Maybe it's just the uncertainty of competitive juices, allowing the less talented, less advertised but more aroused teams to do amazing stuff. Whatever, it's a two-dollar-a-gallon gas.

We get three days to gasp for air, then the tempo kicks into higher gear. Only four schools left in each region as combat moves to accelerated passions of Syracuse (East), Auburn Hills (Midwest), Austin (South) and Albuquerque (West). Each site generates one for the Final Four.

Most compelling third-rounder is Duke against Florida at the Carrier Dome. Six years ago, when the Gators made their only Final Four, they lost the national semifinal to the Blue Devils.

We saw an enhanced level of maturity from a gifted but young Florida roster against the Illini. If the Gainesville gents build on that, even defensively splendid Duke becomes less than unbeatable.

Underdogs are chewing.

Re the Blue Devils, a point guard from Duke conquests past, Tommy Amaker, has done one of the country's more impressive coaching jobs at Seton Hall. Lifted to a more heavenly perch by the memorable bomb of backup guard Ty Shine.

Blessed with a few extra seasons at his alma mater, as a Mike Krzyzewski assistant, Amaker has rekindled a Hall program that made the Final Four in 1989.

Among my own splintered picks, as I stuff my for-fun-only pool sheet into an office shredder, Michigan State remains a jewel. I have the Sparties winning it all.

MSU faces the deepest, strongest region, but it's all but at home. Auburn Hills is 90 minutes from campus. If the green gang handles Syracuse, the last hurdle to Indy is the winner of Iowa State-UCLA.

UCLA is intriguing. Few things in the tournament have been as impressive as a 105-70 butchering of third-seeded Maryland by Bruins who underachieved until late February, when sophomore forward JaRon Rush, out since mid-December, was reinstated by the NCAA. Now, when it means most, the 11-time national champs seems capable of beating anybody.

Stanford and Arizona were overseeded. NCAA committee members put a No. 1 tag on both. One would have been okay, not two. It turns out UCLA is the Pac-10 hope.

Funny how Cincinnati got degraded to a No. 2 after Kenyon Martin was injured, but Arizona was not similarly dropped despite the likelihood junior center Loren Woods (back injury) was lost.

Connecticut, last season's joy rider, winning the national championship at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, flew home with a frown this time, outplayed in the second round by Tennessee.

Gators and Vols are joined by LSU, giving the SEC three among the Sweet 16, matching the Big Ten (Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State) and Big East (Syracuse, Seton Hall, Miami).

Three states have two teams each (North Carolina, Oklahoma and Florida). Good for Bill Guthridge, a new but old University of North Carolina coach earning a nugget of March vindication. Good for the Miami Hurricanes. They keep jumping barriers.

UM's hoops shop was shut down for years. 'Canes struggle to draw big crowds at Miami Arena. Leonard Hamilton has persevered, recruited and coached them back to continental accomplishment. UM has notable effectiveness in games away from home.

Whackiest of all regions is the West, where fourth seed LSU is the ranking troupe headed for an arena called The Pit. Top choices Arizona, St. John's and Oklahoma got squashed, making Albuquerque a city of long shots, including Purdue (sixth seed), Wisconsin (eighth) and those magnetic Gonzaga kids (10th).

Next upset ... who do you think?

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