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Final 4 (past and present)

   by Larry Ness - 04/01/2006

The word parity has been used mostly when referring to the NFL. However, in recent years, the word can be quite comfortably used to describe college basketball. Long gone are the days of John Wooden's UCLA dynasty which saw the Bruins win 10 titles in a span of 12 years (1964-75).

Things began changing dramatically the year after Wooden retired in 1975. Bob Knight's (he was Bobby then) 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers went 32-0 on their way to a national title and that team remains the last school to have finished a season unbeaten.

In the five-year period from 1976-80, 19 different schools appeared in the Final 4, with five different champions. UCLA was the only school to appear twice (76 and 80), although the Bruins never won. Five different schools won titles in those years.

The Final Four of 1979 will always be best remembered as the first national stage for the Bird vs Magic rivalry but it's also important because Bird's Indiana State team (MVC) and Penn of the Ivy league were the last mid-majors to appear in a Final Four until George Mason (CAA) made it this year. The Final Four of 1980 is noteworthy as it's the only one other than this year's, that competed without a No. 1 seed in attendance (seeding began in 1979).

With scholarship limitations and many of the nation's best players leaving early for the NBA, parity has been able to thrive in the world of college hoops. Since Wooden's Bruins won seven straight titles from 1967 through 1973, only Duke in 1991 and 1992 has repeated as national champions. However, Kentucky does deserve honorable mention status for reaching three straight national championship games from 1996-98 (winning in 96 and 98).

Yes, the power conferences (ACC, Big East, Big-10, Big-12, Pac-10 and SEC) still get the majority of the at-large bids each year but it should be noted that this year's Final Four will be the first played without any schools from the ACC, Big East, Big-10 and Big-12 (includes Big-8 and SWC), for the first time since 1975!

The "power conferences" have accounted for 18 of the last 20 Final Four representatives over the last five years (exceptions were Marquette in 2003 from C-USA and GMU this year) but like from 1976-80, these last five years (2002-06) have seen 19 different Final Four teams (Kansas was the only two-timer, appearing in both 2002 and 2003). Monday night's champ will be the seventh different team in seven years to win the championship.

Predicting success in the tourney has not been easy, as the nation's No. 1-ranked team in the final AP poll has gone on to win the national championship just four times since 1979. The list of teams that have done it includes North Carolina (1982), Duke (1992), UCLA (1995) and Duke (2001). Duke was ranked No. 1 at the end of this year's regular season and lost in the Sweet 16, continuing that trend.

In fact, the final AP poll had Duke No. 1, U Conn No. 2 and Villanova No. 3 and those three teams combined to go 1-10 ATS in their tournament games. The nation's top-15 teams in the final AP poll have combined to go just 18-24 ATS in the tournament so far. Taking a closer look shows four top-15 schools (BC, Florida, Gonzaga and Memphis) going a combined 12-2 with the remaining 11 schools going a pathetic 6-22!

UCLA (tied for No.7) and Florida (No. 11) are the only top-15 members to make the Final 4. LSU finished 17th in the final poll and George Mason was unranked. UCLA is also the only school from this year's preseason AP top-25 poll to make it to the Final 4.

This year's Final Four offers some intriguing storylines as well as matchups. 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 that! 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.

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.

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