- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

The biggest surprise in the most predictable NCAA tournament in years has been the utter lack of surprises heading into the Final Four in Atlanta.

With two semifinals — and possibly a title game — featuring rematches of definitive and recent results, it is tempting to try to forecast the future.

That, though, might be a mistake.

It is true Florida (33-5) upended UCLA (30-5) in last year’s final, a game that has provided the backdrop for their meeting at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. And Georgetown (30-6) has the benefit of a second-round victory last year over its opponent, Ohio State (34-3).

And should Billy Donovan’s Gators advance to Monday’s championship, they will face a team they have defeated within just more than a year (Georgetown in last year’s regional semifinals, Ohio State at home on Dec. 23).

But even with so many predictable (or close to it) results unfolding in this tournament, it could be premature to expect the expected this weekend.

“We’re a lot different. We’re a changed basketball team,” Donovan said. “Even with the thing of going before, this is a totally new experience for us. People are going to talk about the Final Four last year, but this is a totally new experience.”

It is a truly new experience for Ohio State and Georgetown, though many of the faces from Florida and UCLA return from last year. Seven starters from last year’s title game will be on the floor for the tip Saturday night, and all but one (UCLA’s Josh Shipp, who was injured last year) played in the last meeting.

In short, the talent level on both sides has improved through added seasoning, which provides a slight level of uncertainty.

“I would say when he uses the word different, I would say better,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “They’re better than they were last year. You have to commend them to be national champs, have all five starters back and have the year they’ve had with everyone shooting for them. As you hear their comments, I’m sure it was difficult, yet they dominated the SEC.”

In many ways, that was as easy to call as this tournament has become. And there’s always a chance this tournament will hold to its pattern of stirring games yielding expected results, even if both Ohio State (against Xavier) and Georgetown (against North Carolina) needed massive comebacks to secure overtime victories.

After all, the only team still standing that wasn’t ensconced in the top 10 all season was Georgetown, and the Hoyas started and finished the year at No. 8 anyway. The only remaining team without a conference tournament title is UCLA, which still won the deep Pacific 10’s regular season title by two games.

Florida and Ohio State were No. 1 seeds, the former the defending champ and the latter the nation’s top-ranked team. UCLA was paired with the fourth No. 1 seed and didn’t have to leave its home state the last two weekends.

Even Georgetown, a No. 2 seed that toppled North Carolina in overtime in Sunday’s East regional final, was a darling of the basketball cognoscenti on Selection Sunday.

Predictability wasn’t limited to the men’s tournament this year. The No. 1 seeds in each of the NIT’s four regions advanced to this week’s semifinals at Madison Square Garden, perhaps as a byproduct of homecourt advantage throughout the first three rounds.

The women’s Final Four, usually a bastion for high seeds, slightly breaks from the trend with No. 3 Louisiana State and No. 4 Rutgers joining a pair of No. 1s (Tennessee and North Carolina) next week in Cleveland.

But it was stunningly egregious in the NCAA’s showcase event. A team seeded No. 12 or below failed to advance to the second round for only the second time since the field expanded to 48 in 1980. No double-digit seeds reached the second weekend.

For current purposes, the absence of a team seeded lower than No. 2 illustrates just how, for lack of a better term, chalky this tournament has been.

It’s a remarkable turnabout from a year ago, when 11th-seeded George Mason made its stirring, surprising Final Four run. Yet don’t forget there wasn’t a No. 1 seed to be found at the RCA Dome; UCLA (No. 2), Florida (No. 3) and Louisiana State (No. 4) knocked them out on the way to the semifinals.

Whether based on past meetings or this year’s upset-free zone, Florida is probably the favorite to win a second straight title. And like nearly everything about this first four rounds of this tournament, that was predictable as well.

“Every team that’s in the Final Four had the same set of goals coming in. They’re just excited to get back to this point,” Donovan said. “It’s a great accomplishment. They did it last year without any expectations, and this year they had to do it with all the expectations. That’s a different set of expectations than anyone in the country had.”

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