Arrow-right Camera

Tournament Won’t Let You Play Favorites

Has there ever been an NCAA tournament where so many of the high seeds, supposedly the best teams in the field, seem so vulnerable on Selection Sunday? Is your money still on Kentucky after that lopsided loss in the SEC final to a pedestrian team such as Mississippi State? Does anybody really have that much faith in Purdue, which ended its regular season with a loss to ordinary Iowa? You want to swear by Connecticut with the knowledge that the Huskies’ best player, all-American Ray Allen, seems to have stage fright in the biggest games? Kansas threw away a No. 1 seed by losing the Big Eight final to Iowa State.

So who’s on an honest-to-goodness roll? U-Mass.? Wake Forest? Are we going to be preoccupied with two teams that each have one bona fide player? The fact is, nobody out there is a real monster, nobody you can point to as a real favorite. Nobody in this field is as good as that Arkansas team a couple of years ago, or the Duke teams before that, or those UNLV teams with Larry Johnson. Four of the top eight seeds lost their final game of the season.

You know what this means, don’t you?

March Bedlam.

Total Anarchy. Early upsets, buzzer-beaters, people on the floor crying. It means Cinderella. You can’t tell your sixth seeds from your 11th seeds. Is there any real difference between sixth-seeded Iowa and 11th-seeded George Washington? Between sixth-seeded Indiana and 11th-seeded Boston College? Between fifth-seeded Penn State and 13th-seeded Arkansas? Who orchestrated this college basketball season, “Parity” Pete Rozelle?

The drama should start with the opening tip. Usually, I look ahead for attractive second-round matchups. Not this time. In the first round, on Thursday and Friday, we get Virginia Tech vs. Wisconsin-Green Bay, Louisville vs. Tulsa, Iowa vs. George Washington, Maryland vs. Santa Clara, New Mexico vs. Kansas State, Mississippi State vs. Virginia Commonwealth, UCLA vs. Princeton, Indiana vs. B.C., and Temple vs. Oklahoma.

Is anybody in the tournament field more capable of winning the whole thing or going out in the first round than defending champion UCLA?

One victory would make Princeton’s Pete Carril something of a Cinderella, but there are teams that could wear the glass slipper for a while longer. It won’t be anybody coming out of the Southeast Region, which for my money is the toughest in the field. Let me go on record early as saying Marquette, the No. 4 seed in the East, is good enough to go a long, long way. It also wouldn’t be a shock to see 11th-seeded Tulsa beat Louisville and then Villanova in the Midwest. Or fourth-seeded Syracuse - yes, Syracuse - dump Purdue in a potential third-round match.

The bottom line here is that it wouldn’t be that great an upset for any of the No. 1 or No. 2 seeds to lose after the first round. If Purdue were playing Providence instead of Clemson (as should be the case in the second round), I’d take the lower seed on the spot. But the tournament selection committee chose a sixth team from the mediocre-at-best ACC Clemson - over Providence from the vastly superior Big East. Clemson over Providence? Stop it, please. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see North Carolina lose in the first round (to New Orleans) or for the entire ACC contingent to bite the dust early.

The Big Ten might be chased just as quickly. I don’t want to hear a word about Minnesota or Illinois because they’re both NIT material. You want a worthy team that’s not going to The Dance? Fresno State. But you know who coaches Fresno? Tark. Yep, Tark. Imagine that, the NCAA putting the screws to Jerry Tarkanian. Naaaaa.

It looks like the Georgetown Hoyas got a pretty sweet deal, relatively speaking of course, as the No. 2 seed in the East. O.K., Kansas State or New Mexico would be a tough second-round foe, but the Hoyas should win. They also should be better than North Carolina or Texas Tech. I’m sorry, I know the Red Raiders have one loss, but no basketball league is as sorry and as no-account as the now-defunct Southwest Conference. If the Hoyas play as well as they did in losing to UConn in the Big East final, it should be good enough to get them to the regional final against UMass.

GW and Maryland, playing in Tempe, are in perhaps the most difficult-to-call bracket. Of the eight teams there, the only two you figure simply can’t come out victorious are 15th-seeded South Carolina State and 14th-seeded Valparaiso, which has perhaps the maddest bomber in the tournament, Bryce Drew, son of the coach, Homer “Leave My Boy Be” Drew. In case you’re wondering about a possible desert showdown between GW and Maryland, don’t hold your breath. The Terrapins, should they be able to beat a pretty good Santa Clara team, would then have to face Kansas. And the Colonials, should they get past Iowa, will get third-seeded Arizona, playing only 90 minutes from home, which could actually be a disadvantage.

Nothing, as it turns out, could have juiced interest in the tournament any more than Kentucky, Kansas, Purdue and Georgetown losing in the final weekend. Wake Forest came shockingly close to joining that list. In fact, if the first weekend of the NCAA tournament can match this final conference championship weekend, we’ll all be breathless.

O.K., now that I’ve left myself the maximum number of outs, here’s your Final Four (for recreational purposes only, please): Georgetown, UCLA, Villanova and Kansas.

xxxx TOP SEEDS East…Massachusetts Midwest…Kentucky Southeast…Connecticut West…Purdue