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This Final Four Shapes Up As One For The Ages

Mon., March 27, 1995

And the winner is … Pulp Fiction.

Oops, sorry about that. I was just having some Hoop Dreams of my own there for a minute and I forgot the question.

But yes, I will tell you who is going to win the NCAA basketball tournament. I will tell you who has already won it, in fact.

You did. You and me. Basketball junkies everywhere and casual fans and even a lot of folks who don’t know the difference between a defensive rebound and an offensive remark. This is going to be great.

I can’t remember a Final Four in recent years that had as much going for it as the one that starts in Seattle Saturday. No matter how you look at it, it shapes up to be a beauty.

In UCLA, North Carolina, Arkansas and Oklahoma State you have it all.

The defending national champion. Three of the top teams in the country. An intriguing and appealing longshot outsider. Teams that have all won NCAA titles in the past, although in the case of Oklahoma State you do have to wander back almost to the peach-basket era.

And then there are the coaches? Dean Smith, Nolan Richardson, Eddie Sutton and the suddenly reborn Jim Harrick. We are not talking about faces on the post office wall here, you know. Rather, we are talking about high profiles, familiar sound bites, old shoes.

As for the players who are involved, I know it’s against the law to mention such a thing at a time like this but this particular Final Four may determine not only the best team in the country but the best player as well.

Ed O’Bannon. Corliss Williamson. Jerry Stackhouse. Front and center, gentlemen. There are some serious bragging rights up for grabs here. If your team wins, it will be because you made it happen. And if it doesn’t, well, what happened to you, anyway?

Which brings us to Big Country.

I don’t know if George Zidek slept well last night once he realized he was going to have to guard, and shoot over, Bryant Reeves in UCLA’s semifinal game against Oklahoma State Saturday. I do know there aren’t many tougher assignments the UCLA center could face. Wrestling a side of beef into submission, perhaps.

I thought Marcus Camby of Massachusetts was the most exciting big man I saw in last year’s tournament and Reeves took him apart in sections Sunday. He limited Camby to six points and four rebounds for his third strong performance in a row against a highly touted big man. Get your sleep, George. You’re going to need your strength.

Another fascinating aspect to this Final Four is that all the teams in it so richly deserve to be there. They all dispatched the last opponent standing in their way with ease. They were all clearly superior to the teams they had to beat to get past the final hurdle.

No overtimes were needed. There were no last-second game-winning shots. No histrionics as the clock wound down of any kind in fact. The winners may have had their problems en route to this weekend’s games - two overtime wins for Arkansas, Tyus Edney’s floor-length miracle in UCLA’s victory over Missouri but once they got Seattle in their sights, they cruised into town.

UCLA’s victory over Connecticut in Oakland Saturday was especially impressive in this regard. Throwing out the way they beat a clearly overmatched Mississippi State team, it may have represented the best two halves of basketball the Bruins played against a good team this year.

But for my money the most notable win during the last two days was the one North Carolina scored over Kentucky. The way the Wildcats were playing as the season wound down, they were my favorite to go all the way. They survived a trial by fire in their conference tournament and they won their three previous NCAA Tournament games by more than 20 points each. And then, North Carolina creamed them.

As for Arkansas, Sunday’s win over Virginia proved how much experience counts at the end of the season. Yes, the Razorbacks have had their problems this year. Yes, they were lucky to win two tournament games in overtime. But when you watch Williamson and Scotty Thurman play, you just want to laugh at people who say they don’t belong in another Final Four.

So who is going to win?

UCLA, that’s who. And John Travolta.

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