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Final 4 Weekend

   by Larry Ness - 04/01/2010

The eyes of the sporting world all descend on Indianapolis this weekend for college basketball's Final 4. Then again, maybe not. More than just a few pair of eyes will be paying attention to Sunday night's game at Fenway, where the Yanks and Red Sox open the 2010 MLB season with CC Sabathia squaring off against Josh Beckett.

MLB's traditional Opening Day is set for Monday (April 5) with a 13-game schedule beginning with Barack Obama throwing out the first pitch at Nationals Park at 1:05 ET. For you historians, it will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the "presidential first pitch," started by William Howard Taft.

Shortly after that, Tiger Woods will be holding a press conference from Augusta National. It marks the return of the world's most famous (and now infamous) athlete, as he prepares to make his first appearance at a PGA Tour event since his fateful Thanksgiving weekend car 'trip' (Masters begins on April 8).

All that said, it's argue against the Final 4 being the weekend's biggest sports story. In fact, it's been a busy week in the world of college hoops, as three postseason champions have been crowned from Tuesday through Thursday.

Missouri State was the first of three champions crowned this week when it beat Pacific 78-65 at Springfield on Tuesday night to claim the second annual CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Head coach Cuonzo Martin (former Purdue player) did a great job at Missouri State, leading the Bears to the school's first national postseason title since they won NAIA championships back-to-back yeras in 1951-52 and 1952-53, This is Martin's first-ever head coaching job and one must be impressed by the way he led the Bears back from an 11-20 season last year to a 24-12 record this season.

Pacific led 35-29 at the half and 50-44 with 11:08 left before Missouri State went on an 11-0 run to take the lead for good at 55-50 with nine minutes left. Pacific head coach Bob Thomason (in his 28th year, 22nd with the Tigers) was none too happy about his team playing all four games in this tourney on the road. "Travel is an excuse," Thomason said. "There are no excuses in this deal but nobody should play four road games and nobody should play four home games. I wouldn't have played in this tournament if I knew we would play four straight [on the road]."

Virginia Commonwealth beat St Louis 68-56 on Monday night at home and then 71-65 at St Louis on Wednesday, capturing the third-annual CBI Tournament. The Billikens led by nine at halftime and again early in the second half but faded down the stretch, as the Rams avoided a Friday night game in St Louis by winning the first two games of this best-of-three championship series.

The first two years of this tourney had seen Tulsa (2008) and Oregon State (2009) need three games to capture the title but the Rams finished off the Billikens in two games. First-year coach Shaka Smart (33 years-old) led VCU to a 27-9 record, falling one win shy of the school's most wins in a single season (set in 2006-07 at 28-7) for a basketball program that only began in 1968.

Dayton won this year's NIT title by beating defending NCAA champ North Carolina 79-68 on Thursday night. Dayton was the preseason pick to win the A-10 this year but faded down the stretch and failed to get an at-large NCAA bid, The NIT title is the school's third all-time but first since 1968 (also won in 1962). The Flyers have quite a history in this event, as only St John's (six) and Bradley (four) have won more NIT titles plus from 1951-58, the Flyers lost in the championship game of this event FIVE times!

North Carolina (20-17) missed an opportunity to become the first-ever school to win the NIT title the year after winning the NCAA championship (not sure that's much of a record) and finished with the second-most losses in a single season in school history (2001-02 team finished 8-20). There's been a lot of talk this week about expanding the NCAA tournament to 96 teams as soon as next year, so this may have been last NIT, an event with a history that pre-dates the NCAA tourney by one year (1938).

Do we really need a 96-team field? I hardly think so. The first weekend of the tourney offered plenty of excitement and upsets. Eleven double-digit seeds won, including St Mary's (10), Washington (11) and Cornell (12) each winning twice. Then there was Northern Iowa (9), which upset top-seeded Kansas in the second round. However, those three double digit seeds lost their Sweet 16 games by an average margin of 17.7 points while averaging a mere 50.0 PPG. As for No. 9 seed Northern Iowa, the Panthers lost 59-52 to No. 5 seed Michigan State.

This year's Final 4 hardly lacks interest. Duke is the lone No. 1 seed left in the tourney. Seeding began back in 1979 and just two Final 4s (in 1980 and 2006) have been played without a No. 1 seed (all four No. 1 seeds advanced to the Final 4 in only 2008). This marks the 11th time just a single No. 1 seed has advanced and while five of the previous 10 lone No. 1s went on to take the title, it's happened just once (Michigan State in 2000) in the previous five times only one No. 1 seed advanced to a Final 4.

Duke's in its 15th Final 4 (third-most all-time) and 11th under Coach K, who ties Dean Smith for second-most Final 4 appearances (John Wooden leads with 12). The Blue Devils will meet West Virginia (No. 2 seed), making just its second-ever Final 4 appearance (first was a second-place finish in 1959 led by Jerry West). Bob Huggins is in his second Final 4 (took Cincinnati to the Final 4 in 1992) and has a chance to become the 12th head coach to lead his alma mater to a national championship.

The other semifinal game features two No. 5 seeds, Butler and Michigan State. A No. 5 seed has never captured the national championship but Saturday's meeting ensures one No. 5 seed will play for the national title on Monday night. Coach K's NCAA tourney resume dwarfs almost every current head coach but Michigan State's Tom Izzo takes a back seat to no one these last 12 years.

He's taken the Spartans to 13 consecutive NCAA tourneys, reaching the Final 4 in SIX of the last 12 years, a mark unmatched by any head coach in that time frame. He won the title in 2000 but this is arguably his best-ever coaching performance. The Spartans are the lone team from last year's Final 4 to be back and who would have believed that, after Kalin Lucas was lost for the season in the team's second round win.

Izzo's counterpart on Saturday is Butler's third-year head coach, Brad Stevens. Stevens was promoted to the head coaching job at Butler in 2007 and leads the Bulldogs into the school's first-ever Final 4 (less than 10 miles from the Butler campus) on a 24-game winning streak. He became the third-youngest head coach in NCAA Division I history to lead a team to 30 wins in a season in the 2007-08 season (his first at Indianapolis) and on Feb. 26, 2010, broke the record set by Mark Few of Gonzaga in 2002 and tied by Mark Fox of Nevada in 2007 for the most wins in his first three years of coaching with his 82nd career victory on February 26, 2010 (he's now 88-14, .863 and counting!).

Michigan State and Butler play the first game (3:05 ET), with the Bulldogs becoming the first school to play a Final 4 game in their home city since UCLA in 1972. Both teams are 3-1 ATS in the tourney and Butler is favored by one point (total is 126).

Duke and West Va are scheduled to start at 8:45 ET. Both are a perfect 4-0 ATS in the tournament to-date and both are 11-0 SU in neutral sie games on the season. The Blue Devils are favored by 2 1/2-points (total is 131).

Good luck, Larry

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