by Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
March 22, 2004
Teams played 49 NCAA tournament games in the last week, so the truth is there were 49 winners and 49 losers. But in broader terms there were less, and more.
It is a cruel tournament. One bad night – heck, one bad minute – can end a season. Or create a legend. But it also speaks the truth. There are no lies in the NCAA tournament. You either advance or you don't. No grading on the curve.
Here are the winners and losers of the first weekend:
After 17 years as an assistant under Nolan Richardson Mike Anderson arrived in Birmingham two seasons ago, and the Blazers program has been on fire ever since. In its second consecutive 20-win season, UAB won a share of the Conference USA title and Sunday scored perhaps the greatest victory in school history, a 76-75 over vaunted Kentucky.
The Blazers' breakneck style of play (influenced by Nolan) and young core of talent makes this a program very much on the rise. But with a potentially impressive present also.
Not only should they have been a No. 2 seed (not a three), they got a raw deal getting sent to Milwaukee where Wisconsin, which should have been a No. 4 seed (not a six) awaited in round two. So Pitt got an unfairly tough draw in an unfair road environment.
And the Panthers just gutted it out. What is not to like about this Panthers team? They lost an All-American point guard, two All-Big East performers and coach Ben Howland (UCLA) last year and haven't missed a beat. Now 31-4 under rookie coach Jamie Dixon, the Jaron Brown and Carl Krauser-led team next gets Oklahoma State in New Jersey.
Tough match-up. But this is a tough team.
Beating Michigan State would have been enough to cap a tremendous season for the Wolf Pack. Who knew that Nevada was in no way done? They absolutely laid the wood to Gonzaga, 91-72, in round two.
The Wolf Pack may hang around for a while yet. Forget the name on the front of the uniform get to know the ones on the back – Kevinn Pinkney, Todd Okeson and Kirk Snyder.
Yes Richmond and Dayton went down, but both showed well. Besides Xavier and Saint Joseph's advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in most impressive fashion. There was a lot of criticism about the league being weak and thus de-valuing the Hawks' undefeated regular season – but that just wasn't the case.
This may not be the Big East or ACC. But the "weak" A-10 has as many teams in the Sweet Sixteen as the Pac 10, Big Ten and Conference USA. Combined.
No one had more to prove than the Hawks, and they passed with flying colors. There was a blowout victory over Liberty, a gut-it-out close one over a dangerous Texas Tech. If nothing else, the naysayers were silenced (for at least a few days) as two other No. 1s lost.
Now comes Wake Forest, which must just love the fact that alum Billy Packer has increased the Hawks' motivation.
Down 13 points with 7:40 remaining to a No. 1 seed (Stanford), most teams would have packed it in and called it a successful season. Not the Crimson Tide. They just got better, putting together an improbable 16-0 run to seize the lead. Then they held off the patented Cardinal heroic comeback to score a monster upset.
Credit these kids who never stopped believing. This is also a testament to coach Mark Gottfried putting together the nation's No. 1 schedule. His team was fully prepared for this tournament.
The Big East
The conference knows the complaints nationally, especially out West. Over-hyped and overexposed, you can't turn on the television without watching some slugfest Big East game on TV. This is the root of the East Coast bias complaints.
Not only are three Big East teams still in it (equaling the ACC), but there is something particularly sweet in the fact that the West (Phoenix) Regional could feature a Connecticut-Syracuse Elite Eight game.
Remember back in December, when the Illini players and new coach Bruce Weber were banging heads in a minor power struggle? Well, everything has gotten more than worked out and the white-hot Illini are a dangerous team. They rolled Murray State and Cincinnati and have now won 14 of their last 15.
Duke had better beware.
High seeds dropped like flies. Others survived major scares. No one was safe.
Well, except for Connecticut, Duke and Oklahoma State – favorites who simply rolled. No one got within 17 points of any of these teams, which are rested and ready for a push toward San Antonio.
The Falcons played North Carolina well. They represented the academy and the military well. It was nice to see them in the NCAA tournament. They didn't win. But in a matter of months the Air Force seniors – A.J. Kuhle, Marcus Jenkins and Joel Gerlach – will become true heroes to this country.
West Coast hoops
After a season full of whining about getting no respect, the Pac-10 went down with a whimper. Stanford, Arizona and Washington combined for one victory, and it was over lowly UT San Antonio. Stanford then became the first No. 1 seed to go down when Alabama used a second-half surge to knock off the Cardinal.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga got the No. 2 seed it deserved but then got pounded by a red-hot Nevada team (the West's lone bright spot) in round two.
Stanford and Gonzaga entered the second round ranked 1-2 in the coaches' poll and with a combined record of 58-3. But you have to wonder about the competition all those Ws were racked up against. Tough year on the left coast.
Sitting in Rick Pitino's office during the first week of practice last October, the Louisville coach's optimism about the future was clear. He thought this year's team could make some noise. And a year from now, it would contend for a Final Four.
When U of L started the season 16-1, pounding Kentucky, Florida and Cincinnati, it looked as if Pitino may have actually been underselling his team.
But the rest of the season was one stumble after another. Guys got sick or injured. Pitino missed a couple days due to poor health. The Cards lost nine of their final 13 games, capped by a first-round defeat to Xavier. Star recruit Sebastian Telfair is headed to the NBA draft.
Year three of the Pitino era at U of L was by no means a failure. But it wasn't as glorious as once expected.
Roy Williams warned everyone last spring that, "ole Roy isn't that good." So stop all the Final Four talk and thoughts of instant revitalization of the North Carolina program now that he had returned to Blue Heaven. Nobody listened, of course, not with all that talent in the starting five.
Maybe we should have. The Heels were great at times this season. But their second-round loss to Texas was a microcosm of the year. Carolina struggled to pull out close games, depth was a major problem and as good as the individuals looked, energy and teamwork often were lacking.
A program like this will have to search long and hard to find the silver lining in a season that ended during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. That's the reality that comes along with expectations in Lexington.
To take nothing away from Manhattan, which played a tremendous game in "upsetting" the Gators in round one. But no team represented itself worse than Florida. The Gators were outhustled, outmuscled and outsmarted by the Jaspers, and showed little concern about it.
"I don't think Montana was a better team than Florida," guard Anthony Roberson told the Orlando Sentinel. After a 40 minute ass-kicking, Roberson apparently wasn't aware they had just played Manhattan.
Hey, Manhattan, Montana, who doesn't confuse the two?
UF hasn't reached the second round of the tournament since making the 2000 title game. Since then Billy Donovan has landed a ton of McDonald's All-Americans.
But you know the problem with McDonald's. Eat it too much and you get trouble.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Monday, Mar 22, 2004 2:59 am, EST
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