Field#039;s pedigree shows signs of great Final Four

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 1, 2004

SAN ANTONIO - Based on pedigree, this should be a great Final Four.

The teams left chasing the NCAA championship include the preseason No. 1, the winner of the top preseason tournament, a perennial power that spent a month at No. 1, and a top conference's regular season and tournament champs.

Further proof that there are no sleepers: The lowest seed left, No. 3 Georgia Tech, already has beaten Duke and Connecticut, the teams the Yellow Jackets could play in the finale if they get past Oklahoma State on Saturday night.

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''Whoever wins the championship, I think, will really be the true national champ this year,'' UConn coach Jim Calhoun said Wednesday. ''I think most years they are, but this year I can clearly say you have to win two great basketball games.''

Seeing the cream rise to the top doesn't always make for a memorable NCAA tournament. Fans love stories of underdogs' pulling off upset after upset to reach the final weekend, or one star player carrying his school to a string of victories.

Yet there's something to be said about the way it's worked out this season. Especially when players who could dominate in college are instead going to the NBA straight from high school or after one year of school.

These clubs still have their marquee players, but the common denominator is that they earned their way to San Antonio by becoming well-rounded teams capable of rising to challenges.

''The continuity of college basketball is not what it used to be,'' said Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, the only Final Four newcomer among this year's coaches. ''You no longer have to have guys play together for one or two seasons. Now maybe half a season, three-quarters of a season might be enough to have them become a cohesive unit and then get hot at the right time walking into the tournament.''

The Yellow Jackets and Cowboys, who meet in the early game Saturday, were long shots six months ago because of uncertainties.

Georgia Tech was trying to overcome the loss of freshman sensation Chris Bosh, now with the Toronto Raptors. Even with him, the Jackets missed the tournament last year. Then practices began, and Hewitt quickly believed his team could be among the nation's best.

He even told them so. They responded by winning the preseason NIT, going 27-9 and tying for third in the ACC. They've kept winning in the tournament even with leading scorer B.J. Elder hobbled by a sprained ankle.

''Because we play so many guys, it's a different (star) every night,'' Hewitt said. ''People may get lulled into thinking that they're not very good, that the sum is greater than the individual parts. But the individual parts of this team are very, very good.''

The Cowboys came into the season trying to blend five transfers with three holdovers. They got their growing pains out of the way early, then breezed through the Big 12. They entered the NCAA tournament having won 17 of 18 games, with the only loss by one point in double overtime on the road against Missouri.

The other national semifinal features teams whose fans probably marked this weekend in ink on their calendars back in October.

Connecticut started the season ranked No. 1, lost its fourth game - to Georgia Tech - and dropped five more, mostly after star center Emeka Okafor was injured. The Huskies' talent and depth carried them through rocky times, and Ben Gordon has taken over the scoring load in the tournament. They've won each of their tournament games by at least 16 points.

Now UConn gets Duke, the team it beat in the 1999 championship game. Although Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski showed his team tape of victories that sent previous teams to the Final Four, he dismissed that title game as having ''little relevance in our game Saturday.''

''No relevance, to be quite frank with you,'' he said, ''because … none of these kids played in that game.''

Perhaps more relevant is this: Duke senior Chris Duhon is the only player at this Final Four who has been there before. He was a freshman when the Blue Devils won it all in 2001.

With Stillwater, Okla., about 500 miles from the Alamodome, Oklahoma State is the geographic favorite. The Cowboys also could become the sentimental pick.

Their story lines include John Lucas' arrival from Baylor after that program was rocked by tragedy and scandal, plus coach Eddie Sutton's attempt to shed the label of owning the most wins without a national title. There also are the memories of 10 people who died in a plane crash while returning from a game three years ago. Starter Ivan McFarlin and reserve Terrence Crawford were on the Cowboys' roster that season.

''There's not a day goes by that I don't think about one of those 10 people,'' Sutton said. ''I'm not sure there's ever complete closure. I think it's always going to be in your heart and in your mind.''