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They Had Strong (and Short) Drive to Succeed

Tulane and the University of New Orleans didn’t qualify for the tournament, and Louisiana State lost to Purdue in the first round, so the Final Four will be lacking a key element that helped decide 75% of the regional championships:

Home-court advantage.*

(*Or something reasonably close to it.)

Talent, tradition and seeding had less to do with who advanced out of the regionals than proximity to the site of regionals.

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Syracuse won the East Regional title with a 63-47 victory over Oklahoma on Sunday ... and had to travel 144 miles to Albany, N.Y., to do it.

Texas advanced to its first Final Four in 56 years with an 85-76 triumph over Michigan State on Sunday ... 80 miles from home, inside San Antonio’s Alamodome.

Saturday, Marquette had to go a little farther to upset Kentucky for the Midwest championship: 336 miles, about a 5 1/2-hour drive from Milwaukee to Minneapolis. In Wisconsin, they throw a couple bricks of cheddar, a couple pounds of brats in the station wagon and they call it a day trip.

Only the West Regional semifinals and final, held in Anaheim, featured no team with a discernible close-to-home edge. That’s because every college basketball team located within an hour’s drive of Anaheim spent the NCAA tournament exceedingly close to home. Say, in their living rooms. The Southland did not have a single team worthy of a pod, let alone the Pond.

Culturally speaking, Anaheim and Lawrence, Kan., are spiritual twins, similar in the same way San Francisco and Paris are. So the Kansas Jayhawks at least felt at home during their stay here, which explains those back-to-back victories over Duke and Arizona.

Syracuse, Texas, Marquette and Kansas head next to the Superdome, site of the Final Four. With three top-seeded teams gone, and Texas unfamiliar with the concept of college hoops this late into Cowboy draft-day preparations, how to choose a favorite from this group?

Unfold the road map.

Miles from Austin, Texas, to New Orleans: 509.

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Miles from Lawrence to New Orleans: 954.

Miles from Milwaukee to New Orleans: 1,017.

Miles from Syracuse, N.Y., to New Orleans: 1,396.

Looks like a Texas-Kansas final.

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Marquette has an outside chance.

Syracuse is the longshot, it seems safe to say, even without the obligatory Jim Boeheim one-liner.

You can’t say we should have seen it coming, because we all did, back on Selection Sunday, when the committee decided to dump Kansas into an already overloaded West Regional because a) the Alamodome was still reporting 20,000 unsold tickets and b) UCLA and USC had failed to qualify for the tournament.

How to fill those seats in San Antonio? Make Texas, not Kansas, top-seeded in the South.

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How to fill those seats in Anaheim? Ship Kansas out there with fellow marquee attractions Duke and Arizona ... and what say we pray for Notre Dame? Local names don’t always play well in SoCal, but big names do.

Once Syracuse advanced out of its sub-regional, ready to carpool it to Albany, top-seeded Oklahoma started looking like an underdog. Sure, Sooner guard Hollis Price had the groin injury. Sure, Oklahoma did not have a readily evident answer for Syracuse forward Carmelo Anthony, who soon faces a formidable life-decision dilemma: NBA lottery ... or sophomore season?

But what truly tipped the scales Sunday were the thousands of orange men and orange women clearing their lungs on behalf of their home-away-from-home team.

Oklahoma Coach Kelvin Sampson grumbled about it before and afterward, telling a TV reporter moments after his team’s elimination, “It felt like a road game. Syracuse took advantage of their crowd.”

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It was the same story for Texas in San Antonio. Like Syracuse, Texas previously had been to a couple of Final Fours. Unlike Syracuse, those Final Fours were in 1947 and 1943.

And in 1947, the entire NCAA tournament was composed of eight teams. Win one game, you’re in the Final Four.

Steve Lavin was born 50 years too late.

Texas’ long road back will be one story line this week in New Orleans. Halcyon days, those were. Back in 1947, no one complained about seedings and RPIs and polls. Back then it was quiet, too quiet. So a year later, the Associated Press debuted a top-20 college basketball poll and, well, that took care that.

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Other story lines already in line include:

* Boeheim and Kansas’ Roy Williams. Two coaches who Can’t Win The Big One. What happens if they both manage to reach the final? Do they call off the Big One?

* Keith Smart. His baseline jumper for Indiana defeated Syracuse in the 1987 final. That game was played in New Orleans. Welcome back to the Big Easy, Coach Boeheim.

* Al McGuire. They said Marquette would never get back to the Final Four without him, but, after 26 years, Tom Crean proved everyone wrong. Too bad, though, that McGuire didn’t live long enough to see this. Too bad for us too. If any team really needed McGuire on its side at this Final Four, it is CBS’.

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* Orange. Texas wears the burnt version, Syracuse the citrus hue. One or the other will play in the final. Do not adjust your televisions.


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