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Cinderellas having sweet old time

Jim Boeheim is a terrific coach. I just wish he'd make up his mind. On Thursday, Boeheim said only 12 or 16 teams were capable of winning the NCAA Tournament. Then, on Sunday, he said the gap between teams isn't nearly as great as people think.

When Boeheim threw out that 12-16 figure, did he include Kansas, Villanova and Georgetown? Has he inserted Xavier and Cornell in their place?

Well, I can sympathize. This tourney has a way of twisting your head around. History does argue that only a handful of teams can win it all. Ten of the last 16 champions were No. 1 seeds. Only three teams seeded below fifth reached the Final Four during that time. Last year, 14 of the 16 top seeds made the Sweet 16.

But just as I was about to give up on them, the "mid-majors" rose up and struck a blow for the little guy. Five non-BCS leagues have a team still standing.

So if your bracket has been blown to bits, you're not alone. There were 4.78 million entries in ESPN's Bracket Challenge and no one had all 16 right. Only four entries had 15 of 16! I hit eight in my preview column, which isn't very good, but better than Dick Vitale (seven) or bracket guru Joe Lunardi (six).

Boeheim was right the second time. The gap is narrowing. The difficulty is comparing the top teams in major conferences with those of lesser leagues. The committee generally does a good job of identifying the top seeds. But they often discriminate against the top team from a minor conference, whose power ratings are dragged down by bottom-feeders.

Cornell was badly underseeded at No. 12, as Temple and Wisconsin will attest. Cornell was clearly better than both of those schools.

Sometimes, everything lines up perfectly, as it did for George Mason in '06. A team of seniors comes of age. It has a couple of players who could have played at a much higher level. The sport is in transition, with traditional powers (UCLA, North Carolina, Connecticut, Arizona) missing the tourney.

There are four exceptional mid-majors still alive, one in each region: Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley), which beat Kansas in the Midwest; Cornell (Ivy League), standing tall in the East; Butler (Horizon), which justified its No. 5 seed in the West; and Saint Mary's (West Coast), hanging tough in the South.

These aren't flukes. Maybe they can't win it all. But one of them is going to pull a George Mason and get to Indianapolis.

Why not Saint Mary's? The Gaels have an underrated big man in 6-foot-11 Omar Samhan, who is averaging 30.5 points in two NCAA games. They have a top point guard in Mickey McConnell, and a trio of gifted Australians. Saint Mary's is fourth in the country in shooting threes and fifth in defending them.

Cornell? Not your typical Ivy. It has experience, with four seniors. Louis Dale, a 5-11 point guard, is a major-college talent (how did he get out of Alabama?). Ryan Wittman has NBA shooting range. Kentucky is loaded, but Cornell has a great chance to beat it in front of a partisan Carrier Dome crowd.

Northern Iowa was 17th in the RPI. It is 30-4. It was a crime for Kansas to have to play it so early in the Dance. The Panthers were second in the nation in scoring defense. They proved it against Kansas. With Kalin Lucas hurt, Northern Iowa should beat Michigan State.

That leaves Butler, which is 30-4 and has won 22 in a row. The Bulldogs, who went unbeaten in the Horizon, have made three Sweet 16s in the last eight years, which is more than Gonzaga can say. They'll give Syracuse a better game than the Zags, too.

Four regions, four Cinderellas still gliding across the dance floor. Maybe I'm wrong and one of them won't make it.

Who says it can't be two?

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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