Up 4 grabs

Mar 26, 2002 10:26 AM

Finally, the Final Four.

It’s been a good NCAA tournament, though the favorites and higher seeds have dominated the event. Kent State and Southern Illinois did their part as Cinderellas, of sorts, and Missouri chose the first two rounds to play its best ball of the season.

Top seeds Maryland and Kansas held form to reach the Final Four this weekend in Atlanta. Oklahoma, who many ­­argued was worthy of a No. 1 seed, join the duo along with surprising Indiana. It’s hard to think of the Hoosiers as an upstart, considering the long tradition of Indiana basketball excellence. However, this a new page in IU hoops.

With Indiana ousting Duke in the tourney’s most exciting game, Kansas has emerged as the 8-5 favorite to win the national championship Monday night, according to the latest Las Vegas Sports Consultants odds.

Maryland, which benefits the most from Duke bowing out in the Sweet 16 round, is second choice at 9-5. Oklahoma, Big 12 tournament champs after beating Kansas, is third at 2-1. ­­Indiana, which bounced Kent State on incredible perimeter shooting in the Elite Eight round, completes the field at 8-1. The Hoosiers began the NCAA tourney at 40-1.

Who wins? Well, like Bally’s-Paris Las Vegas race and sports director John Avello said, when Duke went out everyone’s chances went up. The tournament became wide open with no team showing the capability of extending over an opponent until the final minutes when foul shooting tells the story.

If you like size, Maryland and Kansas are the favorites. Both are big and agile and like the up-tempo.

Those that care for speed, quickness and defense have to love Oklahoma. The Sooners would clearly be the team to beat if this were a track meet. They know how to shut down the opponents top scorers. Just ask Missouri’s Clarence Gilbert and his 1-for-16 effort.

And, the basketball purists who enjoy fundamentally sound teams will love Indiana. Kent State sure didn’t appreciate 15 of 18 perimeter shooting, but the incredible accuracy has long been a trademark of Indiana basketball, which specializes in patience and taking the intelligent shot.

Now that all the positives for each team has been cited, let’s get down to business.

Saturday, March 30

Oklahoma (—6) vs Indiana: The Sooners and Hoosiers tip off first at 3:07 p.m. PT. Playing in the Georgia Dome may give IU a slight edge since the Hoosiers are the more comfortable team in domes. The storyline will be if Tom Coverdale can recover from the high ankle sprain and whether head coach Mike Davis can make IU fans forget Bob Knight.

Davis has done a remarkable job to establish his credibility in Bloomington and deserves the support he is finally getting from even the staunchest Knight fans. Jared Jeffries has been huge in the tourney and must again have a big game.

The Sooners would love to turn this game into a track meet and they can drain the 3’s. The guy that sticks out in my mind is Ebi Ere, who can go on binges where he never misses. If Ora starts hitting bombs, this will be a blowout. Indiana has had a great tournament, but the Sooners should take full advantage of the Hoosiers’ deliberate style and cover the margin rather easily.

Kansas (—1) vs Maryland: This is the battle everyone will be waiting for. Two heavyweights with coaches named Williams, looking for that elusive national title. One thing is for certain, Kansas will not enjoy the 30-rebound advantage it put on Oregon to bounce the Ducks from the Elite Eight round.

The Gooden-Collison tandem was sensational last Sunday. They are not only tall, but extremely mobile. Maryland  really showed its power against Kentucky when relying on the inside game over the final 10 minutes.

That could be the difference in this war. No team more than the Terrapins has showed off the power game. Expect a few more outside shots from Juan Dixon and Steve Blake than they took against UConn.

Maryland has to believe this is the year, especially with Duke gone. Look for a lot of grimaces from Gary Williams and the Terps to edge KU in a classic.

That sets up a Maryland-OU  final Monday night. It’s too late to change my bracket when I had the Terps and Sooners in the final. I like Maryland to win, 86-79. Have to trust it.