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Basketball Heavyweights Hope To Avoid Upsets Top Seeds Will Have 60 Other Teams Gunning For Them

If college basketball were an exact science, then Arizona, North Carolina, Duke and Kansas could make their reservations for San Antonio right now.

They almost certainly will be the top four seeds when the NCAA basketball committee finishes testing its capacity for pizzas, pretzels and potato chips, and announces the tournament field tonight.

Don’t bank on those No. 1 slots guaranteeing anything, though.

The top seed is a nice tribute for a season well-done and a virtual free ticket to the second round, since no No. 16 team has ever beaten a No. 1. After that, though, you’re on your own.

A year ago, the tournament committee came as close as it ever has to perfect pitch. Three No. 1 seeds - Kentucky, Minnesota and North Carolina - made it to the Final Four. And the winner was Arizona, a No. 4 seed that didn’t even win its own conference.

“That’s what creates the excitement,” ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale said. “That’s what makes this the best time of the year.”

The way Vitale sees it, somebody going to upset this applecart. He knows that because somebody almost always does.

“We’ve got four heavyweights, four Evander Holyfields out there,” Vitale said. “The question is: Who’s gonna be No. 5?

“Study the history of the tournament. What makes it unique is somebody from a tough conference usually comes out of the middle of the pack and sneaks into the Final Four.”

He has evidence. Besides Arizona last year, there was Mississippi State in 1996, Oklahoma State in 1995 and Florida in 1994. They were respectively a No. 5, a No. 4 and a No. 3. And they each were surprise guests at the Final Four.

Vitale has candidates for this year’s out-of-the-blue role, too. “A team like Maryland, maybe Michigan, can get on a four-game roll and create major problems,” he said. “A team like Temple with that matchup zone defense, you want to stay away from a team like that.”

Tournament history is full of long shots like Coppin State and Tennessee-Chattanooga coming out of the blue and knocking off mega-teams.”

That’s the fun part of March Madness, unless you happen to be on the receiving end of one of those upsets.

Doping out the field is no easy job. There are 34 at-large berths and the committee often doles them out based on strength of schedule. That would be good news for teams like Wake Forest and Clemson, equipped with ordinary records but burdened by the third- and fourth-toughest schedules in the country. Separating all this is why the committee spends so much on room service over this weekend.

Vitale believes the 3-point shot has become basketball’s great equalizer.

“Teams are using it so much more effectively, at the right time. It has created a revolution in the game,” he said.

That would be the second revolution. The first one was created by Pete Carril and Princeton, who proved that the tortoise was absolutely right, that slow and steady often can win the race.

Carril retired after knocking off defending champion UCLA a couple of years ago but his heritage has been carried on by longtime assistant Bill Carmody. The Tigers have lost just once all year and that was against one of the heavyweights, North Carolina, and only after scaring the Tar Heels.

“I love Princeton,” Vitale said. “They’ve got five bonafide players. Steve Goodrich is the best passing big guy in the country.

“They’ve always been scary. Now they’re flat out good.”

Good enough for a pretty good seed from the committee, provided it can see past its bias against the Ivy League, where the Tigers happen to play.

Arizona’s task may be the toughest of the heavyweights. Repeating a championship is one of the toughest tasks in basketball. It has happened only once since the end of UCLA’s 10 championships in 12 years. That was Duke in 1991 and 1992.

Coach Lute Olson’s problem is the Wildcats can’t sneak up on anybody now.

“They’re on everybody’s bulletin board,” Vitale said. “They know how to win, but it’s a different year. Everyone is looking for them. Everyone is hunting for them.”

Will anybody catch them?

Stay tuned and we’ll all find out.