Vaught's Views: NCAA Tournament still has intriguing storylines

March 24, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

As hard as it might be for basketball fans in this state to realize, the NCAA Tournament really does have some intriguing storylines left going into this week's regional semifinals.

Obviously not having Kentucky or Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen has taken some of the luster off the tournament for most Bluegrass basketball fans. Still, the tourney will go on and there's plenty of fun left.

Start with Nevada, the team from Reno that dismantled highly-touted Gonzaga 91-72 in the second round and that now takes on Georgia Tech Thursday in St. Louis - the site that was supposed to be full of Big Blue fans before Alabama-Birmingham changed that.

While second-round NCAA wins are not big news at some schools, it was a huge deal for Nevada, a team that had never won a single NCAA game until this year.


"We were walking around, it was like celebrities on campus," Nevada guard Garry Hill-Thomas told The Associated Press. "You know, everybody shaking your hand, saying they're so proud of you. It was crazy."

Then there is Vanderbilt, a team that looked to still be on the NCAA bubble only three weeks ago and now is headed to its first regional semifinal since 1993. All the Commodores did was rally from 11 points down in the final five minutes to oust No. 3 seed North Carolina State in round two - even though many so-called college basketball analysts had predicted the Commodores would lose to Western Michigan in the first round.

"People have been downing us not only the past couple weeks but all year," senior guard Russell Lakey said after the win over N.C. State. "People didn't know what we could do. We knew."

"We're still playing and one of 16 teams still playing for our sport's national championship," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "And there was a while last week we felt we might have been given an invitation by accident or mistake. But maybe the (selection) committee knew we belonged."

Or what about Xavier, another bubble team before it routed Saint Joseph's while winning its conference tournament to get into the NCAA. Xavier was on fire Sunday in beating No. 2 seed Mississippi State 89-74 and certainly made it a lot easier to see how it had also rallied in the first round to end Louisville's season.

"If this is not my time, I'm not going to have a time," said Xavier's Lionel Chalmers, one of Xavier's three starting seniors, after he scored 31 points to put the Musketeers in their first regional semifinal since 1990.

Then there is that basketball crazy state of Alabama. Alabama and Auburn had about 65,000 fans turn out for their spring football games Saturday and probably missed seeing Alabama stun No. 1 seed Stanford. The next day UAB broke Kentucky's heart with its 76-75 win over the NCAA's overall No. 1 seed.

"It's so enjoyable to pick up The Birmingham News and see basketball on the front page," said Joe Dean Jr., athletic director at Birmingham-Southern College and son of the former Louisiana State basketball great. He's also a former assistant coach at Kentucky.

Alabama has gone so basketball crazy that some fans are already dreaming of a potential Alabama-UAB matchup in the national title game April 5 in San Antonio.

Remember, that's the night UK was supposed to be playing Duke for the national title. Or at least that's what many Big Blue fans were hoping until UAB changed that Sunday.

Still, the NCAA Tournament is not over and count me among those still anxious to see how the rest of the tourney goes, even though the Wildcats and Cardinals won't be playing.

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