’Nova hopes to repeat history

MONDAY, MARCH 30, 2009

Spartans play Final Four close to home

Three of the teams are Final Four regulars, programs that expect to be practicing and playing in the first week of April, not attending end-of-season banquets.

Trying to pull a postseason surprise is Villanova, a school that might not have the tradition of North Carolina, Michigan State or Connecticut but does have the biggest shocker in NCAA tournament history on its colorful résumé.

Villanova once again will enter the Final Four as an underdog, though hardly the kind it was in 1985, when Rollie Massimino’s team was eighth-seeded and shot 78.6 percent to knock off Georgetown.

This time, the Wildcats (30-7) are third-seeded, coached by Jay Wright and have a semifinal meeting set for Saturday against North Carolina.

The other semifinal will be between Connecticut and Michigan State, and there’s little doubt who will have home-court advantage in that one. The Final Four is coming to Detroit, and the Spartans (30-6) are playing only 90 miles from home.

A nice ray of sunshine for a state that has suffered more than most over the past year.

“I’m just hoping we’re a silver lining in what’s been a little bit of a cloudy year for us,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said.

Villanova is, no big surprise, the long shot among this group of four, listed at 8-1 at the Las Vegas Hilton race and sports book. Carolina is the 5-6 favorite, while UConn is 5-2 and Michigan State is 5-1.

But Jay Kornegay, executive director of the Hilton sports book, said Villanova can’t exactly be looked at as the lovable underdog it was back in 1985 – or even the next George Mason, the 2006 long shot. Not possible considering the Wildcats come out of the Big East as a No. 3 seed.

“But we’ll see a buildup this week and the Cinderella could be created because they’ll be facing the tournament favorite,” he said.

Carolina (32-4) is an 8-point favorite against ’Nova, while UConn (31-4) is favored by 4 over Michigan State.

North Carolina makes its second straight Final Four and will try to make up for an inexplicably bad first half last year. The Tar Heels fell behind 40-12 to Kansas in the semifinals. They rallied to within four but wound up losing.

The Tar Heels are heading to their record 18th Final Four.

Carolina, Connecticut and Michigan State are all looking to join Florida as the second team with two championships in the 2000s.

Connecticut is actually looking for its third title since 1999. Both the previous championships came after winning the West Regional, which is where UConn was sent this time, too.

Some might say the Spartans, second seeds and underdogs in the regional finals against Louisville, had the benefit of low expectations. Not really, though, for a team now making its fifth Final Four trip since Izzo took over in 1995.

The coach has been talking about playing the Final Four at Ford Field in Detroit since the season began.

“It will be a proud moment,” Izzo said. “When I took this job and dreamed about where I could take the program, where we could take it, it’s these kind of things, it’s these kind of events.”

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