- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2000

Did you ever see that "Twilight Zone" episode about the bank teller who liked to spend his lunch hour reading in the vault? One day while he's in there he gets knocked unconscious by a huge shock wave gotta love sci-fi and when he comes to, he discovers the world has been leveled by a nuclear war.

That's kind of how the NCAA tournament has been for me or rather, what's left of the NCAA tournament. I spend the weekend in my own personal bank vault Minneapolis in winter and when I emerge, I find the whole tournament has gone ker-blooey.

Oh, the humanity. Arizona? Gone. Stanford? Gone. St. John's, Temple, Cincinnati? Gone. The Maryland Terps should be feeling a lot better now. After all, they're just one of eight top-three seeds that have been bounced, including two No. 1s and three No. 2s. A couple more upsets, and we're looking at a Seton Hall-Gonzaga championship game.

I'll bring the blindfolds.

Naturally, my pre-tournament picks are doing just swell. I predicted a Final Four of Temple, Ohio State, Michigan State and Arizona, with the Spartans edging the Owls in overtime for the title. At this point, only Michigan State is still alive though I did correctly forecast Temple would lose in OT. (I just didn't expect it to happen against Seton Hall in Round 2.)

To be fair, some of the fallen top seeds had darn good excuses. Arizona, No. 1 in the West, and Cincinnati, No. 2 in the South, were playing without their starting centers Loren Woods for the Wildcats and Kenyon Martin for the Bearcats. You have to feel for them, even if 'Zona and Cincy are the overdogs. After watching his team fall to Tulsa on Sunday, Martin said, "I just felt helpless, like somebody had me in a cage."

As for Stanford, No. 1 in the South, it's obviously still paying alms to the Hoop God for making the Final Four in '98 (thanks to a reach-in foul the Cardinal got away with in the final seconds of the Midwest Region final against Rhode Island). In the two NCAA tournaments since, Stanford has played only slightly better than Samford. Did the Cardinal finally settle their debt in Sunday's loss to North Carolina? Probably, but we won't know for sure until next March.

Then there's St. John's, No. 2 in the West, which was looking pretty good when Arizona and No. 3 Oklahoma went down. If the Red Storm dotted their i's and didn't pick up too many T's, you figured, they would almost certainly win the region. It didn't work out that way, though after struggling against Northern Arizona, St. John's got iced by Gonzaga and the problem, I'm convinced, was the venue: Tucson, Ariz.

It was in Tucson, you may recall, that an unknown George Washington team coached by Mike Jarvis won two games in '93 to advance to the Sweet 16. Tucson made Mike Jarvis. Take away those victories over New Mexico and Southern, and he would have had one NCAA tournament win in his eight seasons at GW. As was the case with Stanford, though, the scales balanced eventually. So Jarvis goes back to Tucson this year, and the Red Storm come out flatter than a tortilla. The NCAA tournament giveth, and the NCAA tournament taketh away.

The only ousted top seed I can't explain is Temple. John Chaney's club got a nice second-round draw 10th-seeded Seton Hall instead of seventh-seeded Oregon and the Pirates were without their big star, Shaheen Holloway, for the last 37 minutes. And still the Owls got eliminated. Most confounding of all, they made just six of 18 free throws and this was maybe the best-shooting bunch Chaney has had. Anybody who can't make more than six of 18 free throws doesn't deserve to go to the Sweet 16.

Of course, Chaney might not agree with that. "The best team isn't always the team [that goes the farthest in the tournament]," he said Sunday. "Most coaches will tell you that."

To which I reply: Yeah, most coaches whose team just lost.

Every year, it seems, this tournament gets crazier and crazier. The top teams simply aren't that good anymore, partly because their best players turn pro after two or three years (if, indeed, they wait that long). And the NCAA and its pit-bull enforcement division aren't helping the situation any. Why would any NBA prospect stay in college one second longer than he had to after seeing what happened this year to Chris Porter, Eric Barkley, DerMarr Johnson and JaRon Rush? Is this really the environment the NCAA wants to create? Does it really want players leaving school prematurely because they're afraid somebody might dig up something on them?

It's great that the NCAA tournament has become so competitive, so utterly unpredictable. It's great that a Gonzaga can upset a Louisville in one round and a St. John's in the next. But you don't want to throw out the Boeheim with the bath water. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but it seems as good a place to end as any.

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