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Archive for Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Grab your pencils: Stanford stands tall

Only rule to picking successful bracket: There are no rules; instinct, reaction key

March 13, 2001

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The picks are clicking as you fill out the NCAA Tournament pool sheet.

Then you run into a dead end: a matchup neither team can win. For me, that dead end was Wisconsin vs. Arkansas in the West Regional semifinal.

Wisconsin vs. Arkansas sounds like a bad Outback Bowl pairing.

What was I thinking?

That's the problem: I was thinking.

Basketball is a game of instinct and reaction. Apply the same principle to NCAA tourney picks.

So let's see ... Wisconsin vs. Arkansas? Sooo-ey, pig!

I've tried all sorts of approaches to the annual expert-picks-the-NCAA-brackets assignment. One year I based my picks on the quality of instruction at each institution of higher learning. Kentucky won the national title that year. Another time I decided football schools have no business in the NCAA basketball tourney. Michigan won the national title that year.

So this year there's a new rule: No more rules.

No more concepts. No more selections based on mascots, nicknames, the prettiest pompom girls, the niftiest backcourt combinations.

Just pick, baby.

West Regional

Hard to say how Stanford kept a straight face as the brackets were unveiled Sunday. The Cardinal has been handed a free ride to Minneapolis. If it gets bored in the San Diego regional, there's always the San Diego Zoo. And Disneyland is just down the road from the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, site of the West Regional finals.

That doesn't mean the West will be a dull regional.

Maryland will perform its usual flop a second-round ouster by the pesky Wisconsin Badgers, who romp past Georgia State 23-17 in the first round.

Another bust is Iowa State, which has been up and down in recent weeks. The final down comes in the second round against Nolan Richardson's Razorbacks.

Twelfth-seeded Brigham Young will beat No. 5 Cincinnati and will immediately be invited to join Conference USA.

Indiana, the fourth seed, makes it to the Sweet Sixteen. Bob Who?

East Regional

Hard to resist Duke and Kentucky in the East final, especially in Philly.

It's a made-for-TV rematch of the Dookies' 104-103 overtime win over the Wildcats in the 1992 East final in the same city. Sorry, Big Blue, but the result is the same nine years later. In what probably should have been a Final Four match, the Blue Devils will hold off the Wildcats in a game that probably ends up 100-99.

Elsewhere in the East, Hofstra is smart, seasoned, disciplined exactly the wrong opponent for UCLA. The Flying Dutchmen will soar past Ohio State before the fairy tale ends against Duke.

Hofstra isn't the only upset here. No. 11 Oklahoma State knocks off sixth-seeded Southern California, and 10th-seeded Creighton bags No. 7 Iowa. For a moment I toyed with the idea of giving 14th-seeded Southern Utah the nod over third-seeded Boston College. The Big East is mediocre, but not that mediocre.

Midwest Regional

Pack a carry-on bag, Notre Dame. Your stay in Kansas City will be brief.

Illinois hangs around a lot longer. The top-seeded Fighting Illini make it to the regional final before losing to Arizona.

The Illini are not going to romp to their first Elite Eight appearance since 1989. They may have to go into the final minute to beat Charlotte or Syracuse or both. But they will avoid an Illini wreck in the early rounds.

Arizona over Illinois was the toughest call in the field or it would have been if I hadn't adopted the no-thinking rule this year.

Arizona is one of the all-time tourney underachievers, and Illinois shared the regular-season title in a conference that sent seven schools to the NCAAs. But the Wildcats have been on a mission since coach Lute Olson's wife, Bobbi, died over the holidays. Arizona won the first meeting 79-76 in Hawaii Nov. 22. Illinois took the second 81-73 in the United Center Dec. 16. In the regional final, Illinois' Lucas Johnson will not be allowed to stick his knee in Richard Jefferson's thigh. The Illini have had a brilliant season. But they'll come up one scorer short against the Wildcats.

South Regional

One of the rules I've followed in the past is that a No. 1 seed has to go down in the second round.

But remember, no rules this year. So No. 1 seed Michigan State survives until the third round, where it falls victim to Virginia's up-tempo style.

With the Spartans out of the way, the spotlight falls on the other side of the bracket. Florida-North Carolina becomes the most important game in the South.

It's a rematch of last year's national semifinal, won by the Gators. North Carolina fans probably don't think it's fair that they should have to face such a strong team in the third round. But the Tar Heels went 4-4 down the stretch and were humiliated twice by Duke in the season's final days. The Heels made their own bed.

Final Four

Stanford vs. Duke: the SAT Invitational.

Arizona vs. Florida: the Sunscreen Classic.

Remember what I said earlier about not thinking? Forget that. Stanford and Duke are proof that brains matter in college buckets. Nonetheless, a little inside muscle helps the Cardinal hold off the Blue Devils. Florida tries to match Arizona shot-for-shot. Bad idea.

That sets up an all-Pac-10 final. The good news is that, unlike most Pac-10 games, Arizona-Stanford won't be played when most of the nation is sleeping.

If a Stanford tree falls in Minneapolis, does it make a sound?

We'll never know. Stanford cuts down the nets.

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