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Friday, Mar 31

   by Larry Ness - 03/31/2006

No team begins the year hoping to repeat as NIT champions but one must admire the way South Carolina went about its business at the end of this year. The Gamecocks stood at just 14-14 at the end of February but including last night's 76-64 win over Michigan in the NIT championship game, the Gamecocks finished the 2005-06 season by winning nine of their last 10 games, going a perfect 10-0 ATS. The team's only loss in their closing run was 49-47 to Florida in the SEC title game.

My free play is on the Sac Kings ov the GS Warriors at 10:35 ET. Tonight in the NBA, I'm featuring my 20* Blowout GOY, looking to continue my 5-1 83.3% run with 20* plays or higher since the break. My 20* Final Four GOY and one of my exclusive Las Vegas Insiders for Saturday's college hoops, will be available by 2:00 ET Friday. Don't forget, I'm on a 9-2 tourney run since 3/23, including a perfect 6-0 on LV Insiders!

The NIT committee (in its first year being run by the NCAA) did the Gamecocks no favors this year. After getting a home game against Western Ky, the Gamecocks were forced to win at Florida State and then at Cincinnati (one of the four No. 1 seeds) just to get to NYC. Once in Madison Square Garden, South Carolina beat two more No. 1 seeds, Louisville on Tuesday and Michigan last night. Well done!

South Carolina joins St John's, as the only schools to have won back-to-back NIT titles (St John's did it in 1943-44). Kentucky is the only other school besides South Carolina and St John's that has even played in two straight NIT title games (Wildcats did that in 1946-47). South Carolina head coach Dave Odom is becoming the "John Wooden of the NIT," as he's now led not only South Carolina to back-to-back NIT titles but also led Wake Forest to the title back in 2000.

While the win by South Carolina sets up a possible "special weekend" for the SEC (Florida and LSU are both in the NCAAs Final Four and could meet in the finals!), the loss by Michigan ends an extremely disappointing postseason for the Big-10. All six of the Big-10 teams invited to the NCAAs were out before the Sweet 16 (first time since 1996) plus in the NIT (besides Michigan), Penn St lost at home in the opening round to Rutgers and Minnesota lost in the second round at Cincinnati (by 14).

Speaking of the Final Four, George Mason and Florida meet in Saturday's first game (6:05 ET) while LSU meets UCLA in the second game (approximately 8:45 ET) with both games being carried by CBS. The Gators are favored by six points over the Patriots (132 1/2) while the Tigers a two-point favorite over the Bruins (121 1/2).

Interestingly, while Florida's Billy Donovan is the youngest of the four head coaches (40), he's the only one who's been here before (in 2000 when the Gators lost the title game to Michigan State).

LSU's John Brady, UCLA's Ben Howland and George Mason's Jim Larranaga are Final Four first-timers, however Larranaga was an assistant under Terry Holland when Virginia made Final Four appearances in 1981 and 1984. The last time three of the four head coaches were Final Four first-timers was in 1999.

UCLA is appearing in its record-tying 16th Final Four but that does include its 1980 appearance which was later vacated (North Carolina has also appeared in 16 Final Fours). Of course UCLA owns a record 11 national titles (last and only without Wooden came in 1995), with Kentucky claiming seven, Indiana five and North Carolina four (no other school has more than three).

George Mason is just the second 11th-seed to make the Final Four (LSU did it in 1986) and the Patriots did it this year in just the school's fourth NCAA appearance (were 0-3 prior to winning four times this year). LSU is making its fourth appearance (1953, 1981 and 1986) and Florida is making its third (1994 and 2000). LSU has never made it to the title game while Florida did in 2000.

The George Mason/Florida matchup features two teams which are both 4-0 ATS in this year's tournament, while in the other game, LSU has gone 3-1 ATS and UCLA just 2-2. Florida is the only one of the four teams to have won each of its first two games in this year's tournament by at least double digits. Why mention it?

Because the last eight national champs have done just it! Arizona, which opened with a 65-57 win over South Alabama and then followed with a 73-69 win over the College of Charleston, was the last team to capture the national championship (1997) without winning its first two games by at least double digits.

For those of you interested in more on the Final Four, my Final Four preview will be available on Saturday morning.

NBA

Honoring Reggie Miller by retiring his No. 31 last night didn't much inspire this current edition of Pacers in the first half of last night's TNT doubleheader. Phoenix broke a two-game losing streak (had lost 110-72 at NJ and 132-110 at Mil) with a 114-104 win (led 58-44 at the half). The Pacers are now under .500 (35-36) for just the second time this year and while they are not likely to fall out of the playoff picture in the East, their first-round opponent looks to be either Miami or New Jersey.

In the second half of the doubleheader, the Spurs won in LA over the Lakers, 96-85. San Antonio used a 19-2 closing run in the third quarter to secure the win and the Spurs now lead the Mavs by two full games in the Southwest Division. As for the Lakers, the loss ended a four-game losing streak and drops them to 38-35. The 35 losses matches a single-season high for a Phil Jackson-coached team (15 seasons).

Friday night's NBA features a busy 12-games schedule with ESPN televising a doubleheader. The Grizzlies are in Okla City to take on the Hornets at 8:05 ET and the Lakers are in Seattle to play the Sonics at 10:35 ET. Memphis is favored by four points with a total of 176 and Seattle is favored by one point with a total of 211.

Memphis has lost two straight and enters one game back of the Clippers for the 5th playoff spot in the West. The Hornets have lost 12 of 14 SU and ATS and are two games back of the Kings for the West's final playoff spot. The Lakers had their four-game winning streak snapped by the Spurs last night and now lead the Kings by just 1 1/2 games for the seventh playoff spot. The Sonics have followed last year's 52-win season by 29-42 to this point and can't wait for the year to end.

The Nets take the league's longest active winning streak (10 games in which they are 8-1-1 ATS and holding nine of 10 opponents to less than 90 points) into Atlanta tonight (7:05 ET) to play the Hawks. Atlanta has lost 11 of its last 14 games and the Nets are favored by six points (187 1/2). The Mavs have fallen two games behind the Spurs and will try to avoid their first-ever three-game losing streak under Avery Johnson (took Dallas job on Mar 19, 2005) tonight in Orlando (7:05 ET). However, the Magic have won six straight at home, averaging 103.78 PPG on 53.6 percent shooting during the streak. Dallas is favored by five points (189).

The Pistons easily own the East's best mark (57-14 and nine games better than Miami) but sure don't want the Spurs (56-16) catching them. Detroit host Milwaukee tonight at 7:05 ET and while the Pistons are a league-best 31-3 at home, they are just 17-17 ATS. Milwaukee is an a three-way dogfight with Washington and Indiana for the fifth, sixth and seventh playoff spots. Detroit is favored by 8 1/2 points (188).

In two more games out West, the Jazz are at the Clippers and the Kings are at the Warriors (both at 10:35 ET). The Clippers can clinch their first winning season since 1991-92 with a win and are battling the Grizzlies (lead by one game) for the West's fifth playoff spot. The Jazz enter on a two-game winning streak (last won three straight from Jan 7-11) and currently sit 1 1/2 games behind the Kings for the final playoff spot in the West. The Clippers are favored by six points (194).

The Kings have gone 18-12 since acquiring Artest (17.1-5.5-4.0), after opening 18-24. They currently hold the West's final playoff spot, 1 1/2 game behind the Lakers (7th) plus 1 1/2 games up on the Jazz (9) and two games ahead of the Hornets (10). The Warriors opened the year 12-6 but have gone 18-34 since and will likely miss the playoffs for the 12th straight season (league-high!). The Warriors won in Sacramento this past Sunday, ending the Kings 14-game home winning streak. The Kings are favored by 2 1/2 points (197).

Ness Notes is available by 1:00 ET Monday through Friday.

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