No vacancy: Mid-major success has disappeared at this year's tournament

Associated Press • Mar 30, 2007 at 12:03 PM

ATLANTA - There won't be any warm and fuzzy scenes like when Jim Valvano sprinted across the court looking for somebody to hug. You won't see any blubbering meltdowns a la Rollie Massimino, either.

And the next George Mason? That dream got squashed two weeks ago.

Nope, this year's Final Four is all about the power conferences. There may as well be a sign: "No Underdogs Allowed."

"What we did last year as a group was pretty amazing," George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. "This year it's what the high-major teams have been able to do, which is survive some incredible scares and advance.

"I just think what makes March Madness so special is its unpredictability."

Not this season. A year after George Mason delighted the country with its improbable run to the Final Four and the mid-majors elevated themselves with eight of the 34 at-large bids, the power has shifted back to, well, the powers.

For the first time since 1993 - and only the second time since the NCAA began seeding the field in 1979 - a 2 is the "highest" seed in the Final Four. Each game Saturday night features a No. 1 vs. a No. 2 - Florida vs. UCLA and Ohio State vs. Georgetown.

Some underdogs, those Bruins and Hoyas. UCLA returns almost the entire team that lost to Florida in the title game last year and was ranked No. 1 for six weeks this season. Georgetown has one of the biggest guys in college basketball and has won 19 of its last 20.

"Last year, everyone was talking about the mid-majors. This year, everyone's excited about four of the top teams in the country - who were in probably everybody's mind at the beginning of the year," Larranaga said.

"It's a battle of Goliaths. There is no David."

That takes some of the fun out of it. Part of the tournament's charm is that there always seems to be some high seed that knocks off a team it should have no business beating - Valparaiso stunning Mississippi on Bryce Drew's shot from just across the half-court line in 1998. Princeton beating defending champ UCLA in 1996.

Valvano's N.C. State was hardly a mid-major, being from the ACC. But the Wolfpack were a sixth-seed in 1983, and they beat two No. 2 seeds and two No. 1s, including Houston and the Phi Slama Jama boys in the championship game.

Villanova wasn't an unknown, either, in 1985, coming out of the Big East. But the Wildcats were a lowly eighth seed when they upset Patrick Ewing and mighty Georgetown.

Last year, the mid-majors ran amok. Besides George Mason, Bradley, Gonzaga and Wichita State all made the round of 16.

"The parity in college basketball is just so close now," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "Anybody can beat anybody on a given day. I mean, I really believe that we can beat anybody on a given day. I still believe we can be beaten by anybody on a given day."

That the Final Four wound up this way isn't really a surprise, though. While the regular season was a model of equality - a record-tying 48 schools were ranked at some point - the big schools have dominated the NCAA tournament.

It started with the selection committee, which gave the mid-majors two fewer at-large bids than they had last year. While that made for plenty of howling, it looks now as if the committee got it right.

Sure, teeny Winthrop knocked off Notre Dame. But that was in the first round, and the 11th-seeded Eagles were headed back to Rock Hill, S.C., by the time the first weekend was over. Winthrop wasn't exactly a typical underdog, either, having been ranked the final two weeks of the season.

Only one other double-digit seed won its first-round game, and neither Winthrop nor Virginia Commonwealth were around after the first weekend. It's the first time since 1995 that no double-digit seeds have advanced to at least the third round.

There was such a dearth of underdogs that the Oregon players were asked last weekend if they felt like this year's George Mason.

"We take it personally," Oregon's Bryce Taylor said. "We just use it as extra motivation to prove that we deserve being here."

Mind you, the Ducks were seeded third. Third! There's nothing underdog about that.

Not that there weren't chances for upsets.

Top-seeded Ohio State was two seconds away from losing to ninth-seeded Xavier before Ron Lewis hit a 3-pointer from several feet beyond the arc to force overtime in the second round. The Buckeyes then dominated overtime.

Kansas struggled with Southern Illinois' grind-it-out defense in the regional semifinals and barely prevailed. Granted, the Salukis were a No. 4 seed. But a Missouri Valley team is always going to be an underdog against a Big 12 school - or anyone from the top seven conferences.

"Last year there were quite a few mid-major programs that had the perfect ingredients for pulling off some big upsets," Larranaga said. "This year, some of those teams also got very, very close to doing it and, for one reason or another, fell slightly short.

"It's always been difficult (for underdogs). It'll continue to be difficult," he added. "But it's what makes the tournament so good and unpredictable. In any given year, somebody can get hot at the right time and do some amazing things."

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