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Published: Tuesday, 3/25/2003

NCAA's top seeds are still marching

BY DAVE WOOLFORD
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

If it were predictable and not compelling, banal and not brainworthy, elitist and inflexible, what could possibly bust your bracket?

March Madness would be March Melancholy, Butler wouldn't be in the Sweet 16 and Gonzaga would be the name of the monster in an old Japanese movie.

But the 64-team NCAA basketball tournament is an equal-opportunity venue where teams lacking national prominence and restrained by the bonds of low seeding can rise up and overthrow the supposed Team Optimums.

But even with all of the close games, the overtimes, buzzer-beaters and the stirring comebacks, the top four seeds marched on relentlessly last weekend.

Kentucky was mighty in the Midwest, Arizona was lucky in the West, Texas got pushed by Purdue in the South and Oklahoma found little resistance in the East.

Having all the heavies around after the first weekend isn't, in itself, an upset. Over the last 19 years, since the field was expanded to 64 teams, the top four seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16 10 times.

They should all elevate to the Elite Eight this week with only Texas facing a moderately scary opponent in Connecticut. The Huskies are a five seed and among the four invited Big East teams still waltzing in the Big Dance.

The Longhorns didn't look that appealing against Purdue in the second round, the Boilermakers within a pair of points in the last two minutes before Texas went on an 8-0 run.

Kentucky should make Wisconsin its 26th consecutive victim. The Badgers can make it interesting only by keeping the score low, preferably in the 30s.

It took Arizona two overtimes and two missed shots by Gonzaga last Saturday in Salt Lake City for the Wildcats to prevail 95-94 in one of the best NCAA Tournament games ever played.

Gonzaga should be given an automatic NCAA Tournament bid every year until further notice, no matter what its record. The Zags have become cult heroes since their march to the Elite Eight in 1999 as a 10 seed and to the Sweet 16 as a 12 seed in 2001.

Arizona should dump Notre Dame, which has to shoot extremely well to contend at this level. The Fighting Irish, who are not particularly quick nor athletic, shot Illinois right out of the gym Saturday in Indianapolis, making 13 of 24 3-pointers, including 9 of 16 in the first half.

Notre Dame advanced with a 70-69 victory only when Wisconsin-Milwaukee missed an open layup with two seconds remaining last Thursday in a first-round game in Indy. And this is a Notre Dame that had lost four of its five previous games, giving up an average of more than 87 points per contest.

But one can't overlook the fact the Fighting Irish defeated Marquette, Maryland and Texas at the start of an eight-game winning streak last December that vaulted Notre Dame into the Top 10.

“We are back. We're very legitimate as a big-time basketball program,” ND coach Mike Brey said after defeating the Illini.

Butler carries the banner of the Zags, Valpo, and other recent Cinderella teams with double-digit seedings that posted ample upsets and quickly became America's idols, before jilting us.

The 12th-seeded Bulldogs upended Louisville Sunday after being snubbed by the tourna- ment last year despite their 25-5 record.

Butler, based in Indianapolis, is where the quintessential underdog movie, Hoosiers, was filmed, and might be filmed again as a sequel should the Bulldogs ... no, let's not go there.

The best matchups this week are Kansas and Duke in the West playing Thursday in Anaheim and Marquette and Pittsburgh meeting in the Midwest in Minneapolis, also on Thursday.

The most intriguing game might be between defending national champion Maryland and Michigan State Friday in San Antonio. The Spartans are even surprising their coach, Tom Izzo, with their excellent play. They can play defense as well as any team in the country and, let's face it, a desperation 3-point heave by Maryland guard Drew Nicholas at the buzzer goes in against North Carolina-Wilmington or the Terrapins are turtle soup.

Auburn was 8-8 in the Southeastern Conference and wasn't supposed to make the tournament. But 8 and 8 equals 16 and that's where the Tigers are as they prepare for Syracuse Friday in Albany after stunning ACC champion Wake Forest in the second round.

But that's the MO of this tournament. No matter what you did before, it no longer matters. Record books, seedings, polls - they all become obsolete. Shoot now and ask questions later.

How sweet it is.



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