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Expect semis, final to be tight


Michigan State's Paul Davis shoots under the defense of Kentucky's Rajon Rondo. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Michigan State's Paul Davis shoots under the defense of Kentucky's Rajon Rondo. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Tom Timmermann St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS – At the end of regulation in the Austin Regional final between Michigan State and Kentucky on Sunday, the officiating crew kept staring at a television monitor, trying to determine whether the Kentucky shot at the buzzer was a game-tying three-pointer or a game-ending two-pointer.

Back and forth, back and forth, the replay went. CBS made the image bigger and bigger and bigger. It was, let’s face it, almost impossible to tell just where Patrick Sparks’ toe ended and the three-point line began. A spot in the Final Four was hanging on an instant replay. But that officiating crew, spellbound by the television, also drove home a bigger point: You can’t take your eyes off this NCAA Tournament.

After an absolutely, unbelievably amazing weekend of college basketball – three overtime games, one with two extra periods and two with double-digit comebacks – the field is set for Saturday’s Final Four semifinals at the Edward Jones Dome. Illinois (36-1) will play Louisville (33-4) in the first game, starting at 5:07 p.m. CST on Saturday, and Michigan State (26-6) will face North Carolina (31-4) in the second game, starting 30 minutes after the conclusion of the first. The championship game will be Monday night.

This was the first time three regional finals had gone to overtime.

The only time two went to overtime was in 1992, and in case you’re looking for trends, those overtime winners, Duke and Michigan, won in the national semifinals, with Duke going on to win the title.

And for all the twists and turns along the way to St. Louis, the field is about as good as one could hope. Though the field consists of two No. 1 seeds, and a 4 and a 5, it’s actually much better than that. Illinois, North Carolina and Louisville were ranked first, second and fourth, respectively, in the season-ending Associated Press poll. (Duke, a regional semifinal loser to Michigan State, was third.) Michigan State was ranked 15th. The teams have combined to lose just 15 games all season. Michigan State and Louisville both knocked off No. 1 seeds to get here. There is nothing cheap about this group.

It would seem an almost impossible act for the national semifinals to outdo the four regional finals, but that’s what you would have said on Easter morning after the two heart-stopping games played Saturday.

Sunday’s games, however, were every bit as good.

North Carolina and Wisconsin were able to settle things in 40 minutes in the Syracuse Regional, but Carolina’s lead was only three with a minute to go.

And then in Austin, Texas, Kentucky rallied from eight points down and on its third desperation 3-pointer of the closing seconds, tied the game at the buzzer in regulation, but only after the officials reviewed all available evidence before determining that Sparks’ toe was, oh, a fraction of an inch behind the 3-point line. (By the way, for good measure, Sparks’ shot bounced on the rim four times before falling through.)

With their reprieve from the governor in hand, Kentucky then couldn’t get a shot off with the score tied and the clock running down in the first overtime.

In the second overtime, Michigan State made nine of its 10 free throws to pull out the win. The presence of two Big Ten teams (and almost a third) in the Final Four serves as a rebuttal for a conference that was maligned for much of the season as not being that good. Naysayers discrediting Illinois’ 36-1 record may want to reconsider. As it was, the Final Four was very nearly a replay of the Big Ten tournament. (It was also the seventh consecutive season in which one conference had two teams in the Final Four.)

The Illini are the only team among the Final Four not to have won an NCAA title. The other three schools have combined to win seven NCAA titles, the most recent Michigan State’s title in 2000.

Two of the coaches, Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, have won national titles. North Carolina’s Roy Williams is the other extreme: He has won 39 NCAA Tournament games but has no titles, which ties him with Oklahoma State’s Eddie Sutton for the most victories without finishing first.

And yet it would have taken only a handful of bounces in each game to have an entirely different quartet. It just as easily could have been Arizona playing West Virginia and Wisconsin playing Kentucky on Saturday, and maybe those teams could get together in, say, Kansas City to play a sort of a what-if Final Four.

Each team had a close call along the way, many of them over the weekend. Illinois trailed Arizona by 15 with four minutes to go in its regional final. Louisville trailed West Virginia by 20. North Carolina beat Villanova by a point in its regional semifinal. Michigan State won in double overtime.

The teams also have something to prove. Louisville has waged a tournament-long correction of the basketball committee giving it a No. 4 seed, and the Cardinals have proved in the postseason what a lot of people thought all along: There aren’t many teams better than they are. Michigan State’s senior class has been derided as underachievers. Williams has another chance to win a title, and at his alma mater.

It’s a Final Four certainly worth watching.

The first four rounds have shown that anything can happen in this tournament and that no game is really over until the final buzzer.

And even then the officials still might have something to say about it.

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