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STANFORD, UTAH WOULD BE GREAT FINAL TWO, BUT . . .

Employing my typically shrewd investigative techniques (talking to writers from other papers), I've unearthed this bit of geographic Final Four trivia:

If Stanford and Utah pull upsets Saturday and reach Monday night's title game, it will be just the fourth time in NCAA Tournament history that both finalists will have hailed from west of the Mississippi River.

It would be a great thing for college basketball, not so much because the schools were from the West, but because it would offer a fresh and fitting end to one of the best tournaments in history.

But from what I gather, the TV people are shuddering at the prospect of a Stanford-Utah final. No recognizable stars. No natural draw for the Eastern markets. A ratings nightmare.

You know what? I'm sick of hearing about TV ratings. I'm fed up with our major sports events being judged by how many precious TV households tuned in.

It must be a rule now. At some point, regardless of the sport, we have to know that the big shots from the network are praying that certain teams don't reach the finals and kill the ratings.

Who cares what they think? Basketball lovers would be fascinated by a final between Stanford and Utah -- two solid, underexposed programs with good coaches. Maybe it wouldn't be a spectacle of stars, like the tacky cavalcade at the end of the Oscars the previous Monday. But it would be a great end to a wild tournament.

By the way, I haven't heard a single person say, "Gee, if only Tracy McGrady and Kevin Garnett were here." That's the other thing that kills me -- the notion that a few kids leaving college early, or not going at all, has ruined the game.

Sure, it would be nice if the best players had a long run like Seinfeld's. Maybe marginal fans would watch and boost the ratings. But the players leave and the game endures. If you're a real fan, the tournament always wins you back.

Just when you think you've seen it all, a freshman like Connecticut's Khalid El-Amin comes along to surprise you anew. Or a little-known junior like Utah's Andre Miller has his first triple-double in the biggest game of his life.

You never know what to expect. You're convinced guards are the key to it all, then you come across this stat: All the Final Four teams ranked among the top 11 in the nation in rebounding. Utah was first, Kentucky second, Stanford seventh, North Carolina 11th. So even though guard play is vital, there's still nothing like size. Size is one thing Stanford and Utah have plenty of -- that and intelligence.

Utah has two starters -- center Michael Doleac and guard Drew Hansen -- on the GTE Academic All-America team. Doleac, who is pre-med, was first-team. Hansen, a pre-law student, made third-team. Nine of Utah's 13 players have grade-point averages above 3.0.

I don't feel worthy to even discuss the academic credentials of Stanford students. Suffice to say they take books along to the tournament sites.

Now let me get this straight. It would be bad for college hoops if two teams filled with actual student-athletes met in the national title game? Isn't that what we're supposed to be aspiring to?

Don't get me wrong. North Carolina and Kentucky are both very smart teams. In fact, this might be the brightest, most congenial collection of players and coaches to reach the Final Four in years. There's not a whiner in the bunch.

The NCAA should be ecstatic about it. In Kentucky (79) and North Carolina (76), it has the teams with the most tournament wins. In Utah (1944) and Stanford (1942), it has teams that won NCAA titles in the tournament's infancy and haven't reached the championship game since. (Both beat Dartmouth in the title game, by the way).

No matter who wins Saturday, it should make for a sensational final. Here's a quick look at the semis:

Kentucky vs. Stanford

Both teams have big, physical front lines and rebound very well. When Stanford's players aren't cracking the books, they're cracking heads. Just ask Purdue's Brad Miller, who was bloodied by Mark Madsen's elbows in a regional semifinal loss.

The Cardinal will hang for awhile, but Kentucky's superior depth and quickness will prevail. Stanford was seventh in the country in three-point shooting (41.6 percent), but the Wildcats pride themselves in defending the arc.

Watch out for Kentucky center Nazr Mohammed. He wasn't a factor when Tubby Smith went to a small lineup against Duke, but his shot-blocking will be critical against Stanford's front line -- especially 7-1 Tim Young.

Kentucky 87, Stanford 76

North Carolina vs. Utah

There's a temptation to go with the Utes after their dismantling of Arizona in the West Region final. But it's no more than that, a temptation.

Arizona was overly dependent on its guards, so it wasn't that great a surprise when they lost. North Carolina presents an entirely different challenge.

The Tar Heels have two of the quickest, more resourceful forwards in the country in Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter. Utah has a fine defensive coach in Rick Majerus, but no answer for those two. He must hope they have horrible shooting nights.

Jamison and Carter are also tough in the clutch. Whenever Carolina has been in a desperate situation in the tournament -- in the overtime against Charlotte and late in the Connecticut game -- Jamison calmly took over the game.

He is the best player in America, and could have one of those Bill Walton-type games in him, where he barely misses and drops 40-plus points on a helpless foe. Carter is capable of stealing the show, too.

North Carolina 76, Utah 68

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