Cinderella Stories Are So 2006
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
The finishes continue to be fabulous in this NCAA tournament except for one thing: The chalk was flying all over the place.
All four No. 1 seeds will play this weekend. Three of the No. 2 seeds will also be playing. Somehow Oregon -- the lowest-seeded team still playing at No. 3 -- doesn't exactly qualify as this year's George Mason.
Not that it has been easy for the favorites. Ohio State almost certainly would be home if an official had the guts to correctly call an intentional foul on Greg Oden last Saturday against Xavier. The Buckeyes then had to rally from 17 points behind at halftime Thursday to beat Tennessee.
But they did it.
Florida looked sluggish last weekend against Purdue and then got all it could want from Butler on Friday, but the Gators are halfway to defending their national title. Kansas spent 40 minutes trying to find breathing room against Southern Illinois but survived a miss on an open three-point shot in the final seconds that could have sent the game into overtime.
Memphis and Georgetown won their round-of-16 games by a combined total of two points. Only UCLA made it look relatively easy, beating Pittsburgh by nine.
The luckiest of the chalk winners may have been the Hoyas. They survived against Vanderbilt on Friday evening at Continental Airlines Arena even though center Roy Hibbert fouled out with 3 minutes 58 seconds left, and certainly caught a break when the allegedly smart kids from Vanderbilt panicked after Jeff Green's basket with 2.5 seconds and didn't use either of the two timeouts they had left.
There will be a lot of debate about whether Green switched pivot feet as he spun into the lane on his game-winning shot. The answer to that question is: It doesn't matter. The officials aren't making that call at that juncture of the game unless the movement of his feet gets him into better shooting position. Green was double-teamed with a third player running at him and still made an off-balance shot. If college basketball officials called every switched pivot foot, every carry, every extra step, no one would ever score. Green made a big-time play to win a big-time game. Leave it at that.
He also ensured that the favorites would continue their remarkable escape acts. This tournament has been virtually bereft of upsets since Day One. Only two double-digit seeds advanced to the second round, and those two were hardly huge shocks: Winthrop beating Notre Dame and Virginia Commonwealth beating the school formerly known as Duke. Neither of them advanced to the round of 16, meaning the second week of the tournament was without a double-digit seed for the first time since 1995.
The only schools resembling Cinderella still playing were Southern Illinois and Butler, and they were No. 4 and No. 5 seeds. Still, if either had advanced to the region finals, they would have been wonderful stories. They didn't, each losing a tight game to a No. 1 seed.
Vanderbilt certainly would have been a nice story. It isn't easy for the Commodores to make it to this stage of the tournament. Being the only school in the Southeastern Conference that never goes on NCAA probation makes life hard enough. Often, it is luck as much as skill that brings a school such as Vandy this far. The last time Vanderbilt made it to within one victory of the Final Four was in 1965. This was only the fifth time it had been this far into the tournament. And it needed double overtime against Washington State last Saturday.
The break that made this year's team a special one occurred three years ago, when Derrick Byars decided he didn't want to be a part-time starter for Pete Gillen at Virginia any longer. Coach Kevin Stallings didn't even have a scholarship for Byars at first, but one opened up at the last possible second in the summer of 2004 and Byars blossomed into the SEC player of the year this season.
The Commodores play 21st-century basketball: brisk ball movement designed -- most of the time -- to get the ball to a shooter outside the three-point arc. Friday, they made 6 of 15 three-point attempts in the first half and led by eight at halftime. In the second half, they were just 3 of 12, and in the end, that cost them the game as much as Green's six-foot bank shot did.
"I couldn't be any more proud of my team if Green's shot hadn't gone in," Stallings said. "I'd be happier, but I wouldn't be any less proud. That was a terrific college basketball game. They just made one more play than we did."
That's familiar March lament, but it is sadder when it comes from players and coaches on teams for whom this is a rare opportunity. Butler in the region final? Southern Illinois? Texas A&M? Vanderbilt? Those are the kind of stories that make March fun. Sure, it has been 11 years since Georgetown was still playing at this stage, but that's more the result of incompetence and malaise than anything else. The Hoyas are a basketball power, just as North Carolina is -- even if the Tar Heels threw in a 20-loss season five years ago. So are Kansas and UCLA, Ohio State and Florida. All those schools have won national championships and have the ability to compete at the highest level most years.
The closest thing left to true outsiders are Memphis and Oregon. Each school has had its moments in basketball, but the last time Memphis was in the Final Four, 1985, the school ended up on probation. Oregon won the national championship in 1939, back when about 37 people paid attention to who won this event.
Still, no one will confuse either school with George Mason.
The games this week have been wonderful -- competitive, with a slew of dramatic finishes. It is the story lines that are lacking.
If there's one thing all this chalk does, it's create close games that will continue to be close because good teams are advancing. Name teams are advancing.
If you love underdogs, you had to love every second of George Mason's run a year ago. But it is worth remembering that last year's Final Four was a dud. None of the three games were competitive; Mason's loss to Florida was easily the best game. The Florida-UCLA final was over at halftime.
So maybe the continued escapes of the favorites will lead to a great weekend of region finals and then a fabulous Final Four. There has never been a Final Four with four No. 1 seeds playing since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Maybe this is the year that happens.
If so, it will almost certainly be memorable.
It just won't be terribly romantic.