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Final 4 Countdown

   by Larry Ness - 03/30/2005

You think the landscape of college basketball has changed much over the years? The first NCAA tournament was played in 1939. It was an eight-team tournament and was won by Oregon, 46-33 over Ohio St. Oregon was nicknamed was the "Tall Firs", due to the team's HUGE front line that consisted of one 6-8 player and two others at 6-4!

That first tournament was sponsored by the NABC and lost $2,531! The NCAA agreed to pick up the tab in return for sponsorship of future tournaments. You think the NCAA made a good deal? Reminds me of the $17 the Dutch paid the Indians for Manhattan!

(I'll have selections on BOTH Final 4 games available on the Picks for Sale page no later than Thursday!)

For those of you too young to remember or for those of you with poor memories, here's a quick trip down memory lane. Most people realize the early tournament fields were much smaller (the current 64-team field was established in 1985 with the play-in game added in 2001) but I wonder how many realize that it wasn't until 1952 that the national semifinals and championship game were both held in the same city!

Prior to that, the two (there were just two regions, not four) regional finals were played at different sites, with the winners meeting in the title game as many as NINE days later! In 1952, Seattle was the first city to host what is now known as the "Final Four". However, the first reference to "Final Four" in an NCAA publication did not come until 1975, in the Official Collegiate Basketball Guide!

The first time the term "Final Four" was capitalized was in the 1978 edition of that guide. The current format where the two semifinal games are played on Saturday with the title game to follow on Monday, was not adopted until the 1973 tournament. Bill Walton of UCLA made it a memorable one, by making an incredible 21-of-22 field goals, in an 87-66 UCLA win over Memphis State.

This year's Final Four features two No. 1 seeds (Illinois and North Carolina), plus a No. 4 seed (Louisville) and a No. 5 seed (Michigan State). The four schools will have their work cut out for them in trying to match the 'magic' of last Saturday's four Regional Finals!

For the first time in NCAA tournament history two regional finals went into OT on the same day, as Louisville beat West Va 93-85 and Illinois beat Arizona 90-89 in OT-thrillers last Saturday. North Carolina didn't need OT to get past Wisconsin 88-82 on Sunday but the Tar Heels had no 'cake-walk' on their way to qualifying for an NCAA-record 16th Final Four. Michigan State's 94-88 win over Kentucky completed the incredible weekend, with the two schools playing in the first double-OT Regional Final since 1966!

While Illinois has been the nation's No.1-ranked team for more than four months, the Illini are the only one of this year's Final Four schools WITHOUT a national title. Head coach Bruce Weber, is also the only one of the four head coaches that has not previously led a school into the Final Four. However, Illinois is on the verge of history, as the Illini can set a new NCAA single-season record for wins by capturing the title.

A win on Saturday vs Louisville plus a win in Monday's title game, would give the Illini 38 wins on the year. The previous record of 37 wins is held by three schools. Duke did it in 1986 and 1999, both years losing in the championship game. UNLV had 37 wins in 1987 when the Rebels lost to Indiana in the semis, meaning Tark's team could have finished with 39 wins that year if they had won it all!

North Carolina is the other No. 1 seed to reach this year's Final Four and while the Tar Heels have won three previous titles, their coach Roy Williams is best-known for his failure to win the "big one", despite his remarkable coaching record. This is Williams' FIFTH Final Four appearance (the first four came while at Kansas) and if he can't bring home the title this year, he will be tied with Houston's Guy Lewis for most Final Four appearances WITHOUT a championship. Williams also owns 39 career NCAA wins and is tied with Eddie Sutton as the head coach with the most tournament wins WITHOUT having won a title.

Louisville was highly disappointed with its No. 4 seed this year and other than the selection committee, few disagreed. The Cardinals won national titles under Denny Crum in 1980 and 1986 and will try to become just the second No. 4 seed (Arizona in 1997 was the first) to win a national title since seeding began in 1979.

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino is making his fifth Final Four appearance and as everyone knows is the first head coach to lead three different schools into a Final Four. If he can lead the Cardinals past Illinois and then the Michigan St-North Carolina winner, he would become the ONLY man to win titles with two different schools (he won while at Kentucky in 1996).

Tom Izzo has Michigan State in its FOURTH Final Four since 1999 (three straight from 99-01). The fifth-seeded Spartans are the lowest-seeded team to make it this far and history is not on their side. While Izzo owns the best NCAA tournament winning percentage of any active coach at .793 (23-6), a No. 5 seed has NEVER won the title. However, the last two No. 5 seeds to reach the Final Four, Florida in 2000 and Indiana in 2002, BOTH made it to the championship game before losing!

With so many players leaving school early, Utah sophomore Andrew Bogut (the favorite for this year's Player-of-the-Year) has already declared himself eligible for June's NBA draft, it's easy to understand why just TWO of last year's Sweet 16 teams made it that far this season.

Duke and Oklahoma State were the only 'repeaters' in this year's group and BOTH lost in the round of 16. However, last weekend's "all-new Elite 8" treated us to one of the greatest weekend's in college basketball history, so let's be optimistic and EXPECT more of the same this weekend!


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