- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

In last year's NCAA tournament, Florida and Wisconsin were destiny's children. The Gators, a modest fifth seed, beat Butler in the first round on a last-second shot and kept right on going, all the way to the Final Four. The Badgers, an even more modest eighth seed, played the game of their lives in the second round against Arizona and didn't come down until they, too, had reached Indianapolis.

But as often happens in the NCAAs, a team that catches a wave one year winds up crashing on the rocks the next. Did you see what happened to Florida and Wisconsin this time around? Both got upset early the Gators by a Temple club that has lost a dozen games, the Badgers by the Georgia State Panthers of the Trans America Athletic Conference.

And that's not all. North Carolina, another surprise semifinalist last season, was sent packing Sunday by a 20-11 Penn State team. The magic the Tar Heels had working for them a year ago, it seems, was non-renewable.

Or, as Carolina coach Matt Doherty put it: "We just didn't play well at the right time, and that's the end of the season."

Hopes in Chapel Hill were so high, too especially when the Heels ascended to No. 1 in the polls last month. There was no reason to think they wouldn't do well in the NCAA tournament, not with players the caliber of Joe Forte, Jason Capel and Brendan Haywood. The same was true of Florida and Wisconsin. Like North Carolina, they had most of their starters back from last season. If they could do it once …

That's the thing about the NCAAs, though. If the fates are with you one year, chances are they'll throw a box-and-one at you the next. The examples are legion:

• 1999 Ohio State makes the Final Four as a fourth seed. The next year: Upset in the second round by Leonard Hamilton's Miami Hurricanes.

• 1998 Utah makes the Final Four as a third seed, crushing top-seeded Arizona by 25 along the way. The next year: Upset in the second round by Miami of Ohio.

• 1996 Mississippi State makes its first-ever Final Four as a fifth seed. The next year: Doesn't even make the tournament.

• 1995 Oklahoma State, with Big Country Reeves in the middle, makes the Final Four as a fourth seed. The next year: Doesn't even make the tournament.

• 1994 Florida makes its first-ever Final Four as a third seed (thanks in part to the East regional being held in Miami). The next year: Beaten in the first round by Iowa State.

• 1990 Georgia Tech makes its first-ever Final Four as a fourth seed, winning games by three, one (in overtime) and two points. The next year: Doesn't even make the tournament.

I could go on, but you get the point. Making an unexpected run in the NCAAs is like making a deal with the devil. Soon enough, the bill comes due as Florida found out in its 75-54 loss to Temple. And as Wisconsin found out when it blew a 16-point lead against Georgia State. And as North Carolina found out when Forte could manage only three baskets against Penn State.

Could the Owls be this year's miracle team? They're certainly beginning to sound like it. After knocking off the Gators, John Chaney said, "We're not supposed to be here. We won our [conference] tournament by the grace of God, I guess. I don't know why lightning hit our plane [en route to New Orleans], either."

Chaney isn't exaggerating. If Temple hadn't rallied from 10 points down in the closing minutes against George Washington in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tourney, it would probably be playing in the NIT right now. And here the Owls are, needing to beat only a seventh seed (Penn State) to reach the Elite Eight.

Then again, maybe this is the Nittany Lions' year. They haven't gotten this far in the NCAAs since 1954. There's also a local team that's showing signs of having the Force with them: Georgetown. The Hoyas, in the tournament for the first time in four years, have had fortune smile on them twice so far. First they edged Arkansas on a buzzer-beater by Nat Burton (hardly the most likely player to take that shot), and then they got to face and erase Hampton instead of Iowa State in Round 2. Of course, they still have some work to do, beginning Thursday against Maryland, but anything's possible.

A word of advice, Georgetown guys: Enjoy it while you can. Because as one Final Four Cinderella after another has shown, the next season can be a very different story. The kind Stephen King might write.


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