March 10, 2002
The new rule that allowed some teams to play closer to home in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament made a fairly smooth entrance with only a couple of complaints.
There were some of the usual arguments that have become part of the selection process over the years, this time whether or not Oklahoma deserved to be a No. 1 seed instead of a 2, and if Gonzaga was rated too low as a No. 6.
The last of the at-large berths didn't cause much of a stir since those who clamor for the teams from the power conferences lost one (Virginia) as did those who champion the cause of the mid-majors (Butler).
The West Regional was quickly crowned the toughest of the four with an impressive top six seeds: Cincinnati, Oklahoma, Arizona, Ohio State, Miami and Gonzaga.
Pittsburgh, the third seed in South, benefitted most from the attempt to keep teams close to campus. The Panthers can cab it to Mellon Arena in their own city for an opening-round game against Central Connecticut State.
Their possible opponent in the next round is one of the schools that might have gained the most from the new rule. Pennsylvania will travel cross-state as a No. 11 seed to face California, which will bring its No. 6 seed across the country.
Another team that has a long way to go to face a team seeded well below it is Wake Forest, the No. 7 in the Midwest that will go to Sacramento, Calif., to play No. 10 Pepperdine.
With the complaints, comments and criticisms out of the way it's time to try and figure out who is going to Atlanta for the Final Four.
Recent history takes care of four games right off the bat. In the last three years, the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds have alternated sweeping each other. It started with the 9s going 4-0 in 1999. That means Wisconsin, Stanford, Notre Dame and UCLA can keep their hotel rooms for an extra couple of days.
Two years ago, three teams with double-digit seedings won first-round games. Last year that number jumped to nine with two each of the 10s through 13s moving on as well as 15th-seeded Hampton, which upset Iowa State.
That number can't increase that much again, so figure it will hit the average of the two years, six.
Since Gonzaga can't do it for the third year in a row, how about: No. 10 Hawaii beating Xavier, No. 10 Michigan State knocking off North Carolina State, No. 11 Boston College downing Texas, No. 10 Pepperdine beating Wake Forest, No. 11 Southern Illinois eliminating Texas Tech and No. 14 Murray State being this year's Hampton with a win over Georgia.
Gonzaga, Michigan State and Duke are the only teams to reach the regional semifinals each of the last three years. With Arizona a tough matchup for Gonzaga in the second round and Michigan State having to face Connecticut in the second game, Duke will be the only one to make it four in a row.
The East Regional semifinals will be Maryland-Marquette and Southern Illinois-Connecticut. The Midwest will be Kansas-Illinois and Mississippi State-Oregon. The South will be Duke-Southern California in a rematch of last year's East Regional final and Pittsburgh-Alabama. The West will be Cincinnati-Ohio State and Oklahoma-Arizona.
The last three Final Fours have each had two teams from the same conference, another trend that will survive.
Connecticut beats Maryland to get there, while Kansas downs Mississippi State, Duke beats Pittsburgh and Oklahoma gets past Cincinnati.
The Big 12 gets Kansas and Oklahoma to Atlanta but neither makes the championship game.
Instead a rematch of the 1999 title game between Connecticut and Duke will occur but with a different ending.
Again, history makes the call. Three times teams have repeated as national champion in a year ending in 2 - Cincinnati in 1962, UCLA in 1972 and Duke in 1992.
Ten years later, the Blue Devils repeat for a second time.
By JIM O'CONNELL
AP Basketball Writer