March 11, 2001
Maybe the top six conferences in college basketball should come up with a catchy nickname like Super Six or The Big Half-Dozen.
They'll need something after grabbing 35 of the 65 spots in the NCAA tournament, including 29 of the 34 at-large berths.
All top 16 teams, the four highest seeds in each regional, came from the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, the Pac-10, the Big 12, the Big East or the Southeastern Conference. That has never happened since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
It would be easy to think the tournament's second weekend will be an invitational for those leagues. But how about the second round?
There is only one first-round game that doesn't have at least one school from the six power leagues in it: Cincinnati of Conference USA against Brigham Young of the Mountain West in the West Regional.
So with apologies to the other 25 conferences involved in the NCAA tournament, this will be the March when down conferences will be further down, mid-majors will be miserable and lower level leagues will have long faces.
That won't eliminate all the first-round upsets for which the tournament has become famous. Each of the regions, except the Midwest, has an at-large team from the big leagues with a double-digit seeding.
The highlight of the second round in the East will feature Duke's Mike Krzyzewski facing old assistant Quin Snyder of Missouri. The top-ranked Blue Devils will get Ohio State in the third round after the fifth-seeded Buckeyes beat No. 4 UCLA in a Rose Bowl-sounding second-round matchup.
The other bracket will provide an early upset and some heavy emotion as 11th-seeded Oklahoma State continues its recovery from the plane crash that killed 10 people, including two players. The Cowboys will advance to the third round and a matchup with No. 2 Kentucky, the school Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton resigned from amid NCAA violations in 1988.
Duke and Kentucky will then meet in the regional final in Philadelphia, a rematch of their 1992 meeting in the same city. The Blue Devils' 104-103 overtime victory is considered one of the best NCAA tournament games ever.
The West could have had another coach-against-his-old-school matchup but sixth-seeded Wisconsin will beat Georgia State, keeping Lefty Driesell from facing his old employer, No. 3 Maryland.
Wisconsin beat Maryland earlier this season in what turned out to be the final game Dick Bennett coached before he retired suddenly.
Maryland will get to the third round, but second-seeded Iowa State will end the run there and face top-seeded and top-ranked Stanford, which will end fourth-seeded Indiana's run under interim coach Mike Davis.
The Midwest has some great second-round matchups in Syracuse-Kansas and Notre Dame-Mississippi. But the one worth waiting for is the regional final between top-seeded Illinois and No. 2 Arizona. In their third meeting of the year, look for the Illini to take a 2-1 lead in the series and the Final Four berth.
The South will provide the biggest early round upset when No. 10 Providence hands second-seeded North Carolina its fifth loss in five Sundays in the second round.
The Friars will hit the wall against No. 3 Florida, coached by Billy Donovan, who led them to the Final Four in 1987 as a jump-shooting guard called "Billy The Kid."
Top-seeded Michigan State's defense at a national championship will survive the early rounds, but the Gators, in a rematch of last year's title game, will return to the Final Four.
That means it will be Duke against Stanford in one national semifinal in Minneapolis and Illinois against Florida in the other.
Stanford will be in its first championship game since winning it all in 1942. Illinois will play in the last game of the season for the first time.
In a tournament dominated by six conferences, wouldn't it be appropriate that the school that won it all came from the league that had the most teams in the field?
Illinois, one of the seven Big Ten teams in the tournament, will finish as No. 1.
By JIM O'CONNELL
AP Basketball Writer