Still Time to Get the Ending Right

By John Feinstein
Special to
Monday, March 31, 2008; 5:13 PM

The NCAA men's basketball committee needs to hire the Washington Nationals scriptwriter. God knows, with the billions it gets from CBS, it can afford one.

A good scriptwriter produces an ending like Sunday's at Nationals Park: the face and future of the franchise (Ryan Zimmerman) hitting a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the inaugural game in the new place, 3-2, over an important division rival, the Atlanta Braves. Throw in the team having the remarkably good sense to have a local girl made good -- opera star Denyce Graves -- sing the national anthem and the night was just about perfect except for the presence of the cowboy President and his minions, and the ESPN crew among them.

Sadly, the basketball scriptwriters must work in the White House, because much like the people working there, they couldn't get anything right this weekend. Twelve NCAA tournament basketball games leading to The Final Four produced 10 one-sided routs -- 10! -- and a weekend that ended with the glass slipper sliding off Cinderella's foot.

That's not to say that there are any ugly stepsisters heading for San Antonio this coming weekend. It is now crystal clear that North Carolina, Memphis, UCLA and Kansas -- the four No. 1 seeds in the tournament -- are this year's four best teams. UCLA and Memphis had close calls in the second round and Kansas barely made it across the finish line Sunday. The Tar Heels have looked, well, unbeatable -- winning four games by 101 points (closest margin, 10). They gradually pulled away from a game and talented Louisville team on Saturday, leaving no doubt by the finish.

Call this the weekend of no doubt. How often does one see a 50-20 score at halftime of a round of 16 game, much less the team with 20 being a Tom Izzo-coached Michigan State team? (Memphis had the 50 for those of you who were already smart enough to be asleep at that juncture on Friday night). There was one game among the eight played on Thursday-Friday that had real suspense: Xavier-West Virginia. The Mountaineers rallied from way behind to lead, had a chance to win in regulation, led by six in overtime and then lost, 79-75.

Among the other seven games, the only one anyone wanted to watch other than fans of the winners was Davidson-Wisconsin. Remember a week ago when some people claimed Davidson's win was built on location (Raleigh, N.C.) and refereeing? If nothing else the Wildcats put that myth to rest with their play in Detroit -- which, for the record, is nowhere near Davidson, N.C.

They broke open a close game in the second half, completely shutting down a Wisconsin team that had won 31 games. The Big Ten was clearly down this season but there aren't a lot of coaches better at preparing for the tournament than Bo Ryan and Izzo. Everyone knows Izzo's tournament record -- one national title, four Final Fours, a deep run almost every year dating to his first elite eight in 1998. Ryan hasn't been to a Final Four, but his Badgers rarely lose to a team seeded lower than them.

This year, they joined Gonzaga and Georgetown as higher seeds brought down by the clearly under-seeded kids from Davidson. As great as Stephen Curry was for four games -- 128 points, spectacular plays every game, wonderful passing, everything you could possible ask for -- he doesn't get to within a play of the Final Four without ample help from his friends.

It wasn't just the brilliance of point guard Jason Richards, it was everyone -- most notably at the defensive end of the floor. To steal a phrase from that noted DirecTV pitchman with the 902 coaching victories, this was a team that could guard.

Curry scored 22 points against Wisconsin in the second half. The Badgers scored 20 during that same 20 minutes. Two days later, a Kansas team that had been held under 60 points once all season (on December 2nd at USC in a 59-55 win before it had really cranked up its offense) was held under 60 again. That the Jayhawks escaped 59-57 was a tribute to their own toughness under difficult circumstances. Not only were they playing a team that believed it was going to win and was good enough to win, they were also fighting their own self doubts, having lost in the regional finals in two of Coach Bill Self's four seasons. Self had been to the regional finals four times -- once each at Tulsa and Illinois -- without reaching the promised land of college basketball's final weekend.

Now he's there and the huge sigh of relief he breathed when Richards' last-second 28-footer banged off the backboard was really the only comment anyone needed on how he felt about not answering anymore questions about being winless in the regional finals.

The presence of these four teams should make for a spectacular Final Four. Collectively they have a staggering record of 143-9 this season: Memphis is 37-1; Carolina is 36-2 and UCLA and Kansas are 35-3. All have stars -- current and future NBA types.

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