ATLANTA – Is this the best Final
Four field we’ve been graced with since 1993?
I’m inclined to think so, although
the one two years ago --- in which Illinois beat Louisville in overtime, North Carolina rallied to beat Michigan State and then the Tar Heels held off the
Illini in the final in St. Louis – was pretty darn nifty as well.
But 14 years ago in New Orleans,
the field rocked with three No. 1 seeds (eventual champion North Carolina,
Michigan and Kentucky) and a No. 2 (Kansas).
The teams that will stroll onto the
Georgia Dome floor tonight are made up a couple of 1s (defending champion
Florida and Ohio State) and a pair of 2s (UCLA and Georgetown).
And anyone short of a Kansas and
North Carolina loyalist couldn’t have asked for a more ideal group of teams to
duke it out (no pun intended, all of you Blue Devils, no matter where you may be
this weekend) on the final weekend of the season.
For the vast majority of the
season, the four teams in Atlanta and the aforementioned Jayhawks and Tar Heels
were the consensus choices as the six most viable national championship teams in
And it was pretty clear in regional
play (during which UCLA knocked off Kansas and Georgetown eliminated North
Carolina) as to why the thinking went that way.
Florida, of course, was locked into
that classification sometime last spring, when Joakim Noah, Al Horford
and Corey Brewer secured the Gators’ preseason No. 1 status by
announcing, en masse, that they were committed to becoming University of Florida
juniors this season.
With its starting backcourt
(Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey), as well as key reserves Chris Richard and Walter Hodge, also slated to return from a team that
dominated the 2006 NCAA Tournament in almost ridiculous fashion, Florida
was the only logical choice in November to cut down nets on April 3 in this very
Once Greg Oden and Mike Conley announced on June 25 of 2005 --- two months before starting their
senior years at Lawrence North High in Indianapolis – that they were going to
enroll at Ohio State in the fall of 2006, the Buckeyes jumped onto the very
short list of 2007 national championship contenders.
And that’s been the case, in large,
because of the presence of some integral members (Ron Lewis, Jamar Butler
and Ivan Harris) of the Thad Matta-coached team that won the 2006
Big Ten championship.
I remember watching Georgetown lose
(81-63) to Oral Roberts in a December of 2004 tournament in Honolulu.
John Thompson III was in his
first season at the helm of the program that his father built into a national
powerhouse. In his starting lineup for that 18-point loss were three freshmen,
Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert and Jonathan Wallace.
Since then the Hoyas have gone
19-13 (getting two of those wins in the 2005 NIT), 23-10 (losing to Florida in
the Sweet 16 a year) and now 30-4.
And those three players who were
part of loss to the Titans in Hawaii were integral elements in the team’s
remarkable rally from a 10-point deficit against North Carolina to a East
Regional championship win Sunday in East Rutherford.
That’s called making
Despite three starters from the
team that was whipped by the Gators last April 3, Ben Howland’s program
rolled through this season, hitting only a few speed bumps (most notably losses
to Washington and Cal in its final two Pac-10 games this month).
With players such as Arron Afflalo, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Lorenzo Mata and Darren Collison a
year older, forward Josh Shipp in the lineup after missing most of last
season with a hip injury, is this Bruins’ club better than the one that won 32
games last season before falling to Florida?
A lot of folks – Howland included –
seem to think so.
Either Georgetown, Ohio State or
UCLA players could cut down nets Monday night while “One Shining Moment” blares
and confetti flies and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
That being said . . . I see of no
other logical team to project as the 2007 national champion other than the team
that returned so much from the 2006 title team.
As I’ve written approximately a
zillion times (OK, maybe I exaggerate a little), until someone beats the Gators
this season, they have to be considered the team to beat for the
If they don’t win Saturday night,
we’ll explore other options afterward.
Inducted into the USBWA Hall of
Fame in April, 2005, Frank Burlison is Scout.com’s national basketball expert and is
also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at
email@example.com. Read more of Burlison’s pieces at