- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

A word of warning - fill out your bracket sheet with fingers crossed.

This NCAA tournament has the sense of being more egalitarian than ever, more susceptible to the lower seeds stepping on the toes of the higher seeds.

You can tell from the outcomes of the major conference tournaments. Other than Louisville in the Big East, not one of the top seeds from the other five major conferences made it to the championship round.

North Carolina, Michigan State, Louisiana State and Washington all lost in the semifinals of their conference tournaments. Kansas was waylaid in the quarterfinals.

Part of the reason for this potentially bracket-busting state of affairs is the absence of compelling individual talent in the 65-team field. With the exception of Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin, the ooh-and-aah element of the players is lacking.

Stephen Curry, who captivated the nation with his long-range shooting last March, will be wooing NIT throngs after Davidson failed to make the NCAA tournament.

Most of the tournament’s leading players have the look of future role players in the NBA.

There is no dominant figure in the field, no one who can carry a team in the last five minutes of a game. There is no Larry Bird, no Magic Johnson, no Michael Jordan, no Patrick Ewing, no Hakeem Olajuwon.

No wonder Mike Krzyzewski calls this version of Duke a good team but not a great one despite its 28-6 record and ninth ACC championship in 12 years.

Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson are able players, even capable of being special on occasion, but they do not evoke comparisons to Christian Laettner and Grant Hill.

There is an either/or aspect of so many of the top players from the leading teams.

Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet, however massive, is a plodder with hands of stone. Louisville’s Earl Clark is a wonderful athlete who lacks a polished set of basketball skills.

North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough is one of the most productive and competitive players ever in the ACC. And yet his athletic deficiencies are all too apparent. A quick opponent inevitably gives him problems.

If there is a potentially special team in the field - as special is defined down - the Tar Heels qualify. They are the most complete team in college basketball, even dominant at times.

Their loss to Florida State in the conference semifinals came about in part because of coach Roy Williams’ decision to sit point guard Ty Lawson as a precaution.

The ACC player of the year, saddled with a jammed big toe, is expected to be ready to play Thursday in Greensboro, N.C. He is the one player the Tar Heels desperately need to make a long run in the tournament. His vision and court savvy enhance the shot selection of the Tar Heels.

Pittsburgh earned a No. 1 seed but carries an incriminating tournament file. The Panthers have never advanced beyond the Sweet 16 since joining the Big East in 1982.

The Big East was permitted to take a bow after landing three No. 1 seeds. Memphis was allowed to feel snubbed after being downgraded to a No. 2 seed, the product of its modest Conference USA pedigree.

Small programs could cry foul over so many also-rans of the major conferences being awarded bids, with no school more peeved than Saint Mary’s. This West Coast Conference program added another game to its schedule two weeks ago in an effort to impress the selection committee and show that guard Patrick Mills had recovered from a broken right hand. Yet that extra attention to detail, plus the 26-6 record of the Gaels, failed to impress.

American University received the back hand of the selection committee: a trip to Philadelphia to play in the backyard of Villanova.

Maryland, declared dead a number of times in recent weeks, refused to acquiesce to the grim prognosis. The Terps made the cut and will face California, if only by their victory against Wake Forest in the ACC tournament.

Their renewed life is game-to-game now, just as it is for the other 64 teams.

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