Final Four as full of stars as it’s ever been

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 5, 2008

SAN ANTONIO ó This year’s Final Four is shaping up to be the most star-studded one of my lifetime.
Disclaimer: I was born two months after Magic Johnson and Michigan State beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in the 1979 championship game.
The NCAA started seeding teams that season, and this is the first time four No. 1s have reached the Final Four. UCLA faces Memphis tonight in the first semifinal, and North Carolina plays Kansas in the nightcap at the Alamodome.
Those schools occupied the top four spots in the Associated Press’ preseason poll. They were also ranked first through fourth, with UNC again No. 1, in the final poll released before the start of the NCAA tournament.
“Those guys were No. 1 seeds for a reason,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “It means they had a great year already before the tournament started. If those four teams are still the last four teams playing, it means they’ve had a great tournament. To me, it pretty well proves those are the best four teams.”
The bracket-busting upsets that make the opening rounds of the tournament so popular often dilute the pool of talented teams vying for a championship.
George Mason made a stunning run as a No. 11 seed in 2006, collecting notable wins against North Carolina and Connecticut en route to the Final Four.
Once there, it lost a snoozefest to Florida. LSU, which had defeated Duke in the Sweet 16, exited with an uninspired loss to UCLA. The most dramatic news to develop that day involved Herb Sendek and his decision to leave N.C. State for Arizona State.
Davidson, led by sharpshooting sophomore Stephen Curry, came close to crashing the invitation-only party this year but fell two points short against Kansas in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats nearly beat three of the Final Four entries, so they weren’t playing over the heads, but Kansas appropriately joined a power-packed field by emerging from the Midwest Regional.
n UCLA has reached the semifinals for the third straight season, and freshman standout Kevin Love leads the current group of Bruins.
n Memphis played a powder-puff conference schedule but pummeled Texas in the most impressive performance among the regional finalists.
n Kansas, my pre-Christmas pick to win the national title, plays shut-down defense and possesses unmatched balance.
n North Carolina has won each of its tournament games by at least 10 points, and Williams is the only remaining coach with a national title to his credit.
“I do believe it’s the greatest gathering of any four teams at the Final Four,” Williams said.
The Tar Heels and Jayhawks were involved in the Final Four with the most on-paper strength in recent memory.
Williams, then at Kansas, faced his alma mater in 1991 and 1993. In the second instance, the Jayhawks were the only No. 2 seed among a trio of No. 1s. UNC took one semifinal, and Michigan beat Kentucky in the other.
That Final Four had tradition-rich programs, NBA prospects and a signature moment Chris Webber would rather forget.
Two of the first three are already taken care of as tonight’s tipoff approaches. All this tournament needs is a fantastic finish to complement Curry’s early theatrics. n
Contact Bret Strelow at 704-797-4258 or