No Frills Is No Reason to Write Off Final Four

That was a pretty exciting four-round Tough Man contest, wasn’t it?

You didn’t move through the first four rounds of this year’s NCAA Final Four this season without a constellation of bruises, a defensive-minded coach and a work ethic that lasted all 40 minutes or more.

It was not frilly basketball, it wasn’t a test to see who could grab the most alley-oops or pose for the most magazine covers.

It was scratch and claw, cling and shove, survive and advance.

Nobody’s going to rush to make this Final Four instant-classic video reel--both the Southeastern and Big Ten postseason conference tournaments had more talent--but nobody’s going to deny that the toughest teams have lasted the longest.


Wisconsin. Michigan State. North Carolina. Florida.

So even if America notes the lack of high-impact matchups Saturday and next Monday and tunes out, there are things to savor about these last two weekends of NCAA counterintuitive competitiveness:

* You never heard of them, now you won’t forget: Florida’s Brett Nelson, Tulsa’s Eric Coley, Oklahoma State’s Desmond Mason and Wisconsin’s Mike Kelley all played like demons on both sides of the ball and showed just how deep the NCAA talent pool is.

* The NBA was watching: Coley, Mason, Florida’s Mike Miller, North Carolina’s Brendan Haywood and UCLA’s Jerome Moiso probably lifted themselves 10 to 20 draft slots higher.

* The future arrives: Carolina freshman Joseph Forte looked slight and tentative earlier this season. He’s the man now.

* Taking the high road: He’s easy to criticize, but a nod to UCLA’s Steve Lavin--and definitely to Earl Watson, Moiso and JaRon Rush--for harnessing this team’s strange energy at the right time.

Lavin is going to be at UCLA, and I will be writing about him, for as long as he wants.

* The coaching eminences: Wisconsin’s Dick Bennett and Bill Guthridge do it right, do it without making fools of themselves; and it’s a credit to the tournament, and to them, that they could fight to the Final Four after losing 13 times in the regular season.


And your NCAA tournament/NBA Oscars go to . . .

* Best original screenplays: Michigan State, which trailed Utah, Syracuse and Iowa State in the second half (Billy Packer “ballgame!” specials) before storming down the stretch to pull each game out.

* Lifetime achievement: Florida Coach Billy Donovan, all 34 years of it, and didn’t he just play in the Final Four with Providence about two years ago?

* Best supporting actor: The Lakers’ Glen Rice, meeting the second-half challenge on Sunday when the Lakers needed somebody other than Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to take the edge off the Kings.

* Best actors: Purdue’s Brian Cardinal and Sacramento’s Vlade Divac, who both certainly know a flop when they see it.

* Best score: O’Neal’s final free throw to lift the Lakers.

* Best director (tie): Tulsa Coach Bill Self, who should be everybody’s No. 1 choice the next time a big school comes looking for a hot hire; Oklahoma State point guard Doug Gottlieb, who ran his team as well as anybody in the nation.

* Best editing: CBS kept the live mike away during Iowa State Coach Larry Eustachy’s end-game tirade on Saturday.

* Best snub: West regional winner Wisconsin, which did not have a player make the all-Big 10 first, second or third team.

* Best documentary: CNN-SI, outtakes from Bobby Knight story.

* Best short subject: Stanford, Arizona fun tournament runs.


1. Kingdome, ka-blooey: Biggest sports implosion since Angels last season. It’s the house Ken Griffey Jr. blew up.

2. On and on and on, Wisconsin: Back-to-back victorious Rose Bowls, a Heisman winner, now a Final Four. Who do Badgers think they are, Stanford?

3. The Players Championship, delayed by weather: Maybe momentum-riding Hal Sutton is right--everybody wants Tiger Woods to win, even Mother Nature.

4. Karrie Webb: LPGA yet another industry being dominated by the Webb.

5. Aree Song Wongluekiet at the Nabisco Championship: A 13-year-old in the last group on Sunday in a major? Totally cool!

6. Kevin Elster: He’s the Dodgers’ starting shortstop. Orel Hershiser could be a No. 4 starter. So Kevin McReynolds wasn’t available?

7. Alex Rodriguez: But really, Dodgers are in a holding pattern for upcoming A-Rod sweepstakes.

8. Sports Illustrated picks Boston Red Sox: To win the World Series. Right after that, Pat Buchanan will win the presidency.

9. The Rodman Effect: A season after releasing him, Lakers are NBA’s top team. Weeks after releasing him, Dallas is on upsurge. Who said all he did was tear a team down?

10. Kevin Johnson’s comeback: Been out of league for two years. Or just a little bit less than Penny Hardaway.


So, if you’re an aspiring No. 1 overall draft pick, how closely are you watching that battle between the Clippers and Chicago Bulls for the right to ruin Kenyon Martin’s NBA career?

It’s down to the wire, and the Bulls sure are showing a dedication to losing . . . but don’t you still have to like the Clippers, two games ahead in the loss column and down to about four able-bodied players?

And if you’re the Bulls or the Clippers, do you realize how many scouts are saying there’s no sure thing at No. 2?

Chris Mihm? Erick Barkley? Marcus Fizer?

Isn’t lottery-ball management always the one thing we can count on with the Clippers?