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April 4, 2006

Parity disappears on Final Four weekend

INDIANAPOLIS - So much for parity - at least in the Final Four.

While the first two weeks of the NCAA tournament produced entertaining games, huge upsets and buzzer-beating shots, the final weekend turned into a complete bust when Florida routed UCLA 73-57 in the title game.

Perhaps expectations were too high after all four top seeded teams were eliminated before the Final Four for the first time since 1980 and teams like George Mason, Wichita State and Bradley busted brackets from coast-to-coast.

A true surprise team made it for the first time in nearly three decades, and with the tournament moving to Indiana, questions about a sequel to the movie ''Hoosiers'' became the hot topic.

But all three games turned into routs, worse even than it appeared from the victory margins of 14 and 15 in Saturday's semifinals and 16 in the championship. Outcomes were decided early in the second half, or earlier, thanks to a combination of poor shooting, great defense and pure sloppiness.

The weekend also produced the second-lowest scoring semifinal since the shot-clock was added, and the season ended with the most lopsided championship since 1992 when Duke beat Michigan 71-51.

What happened?

Some people contend shooting percentages drop in dome stadiums because of the unfamiliarity with deep backgrounds - an issue players and coaches still deny.

UCLA's numbers may have been a reflection of that. It shot 41.2 percent from the field in Saturday's 59-45 victory over LSU, including a dismal 25.9 percent in the second half. The Bruins weren't much better Monday night, shooting only 36.1 percent from the field, including 29.6 percent in the first half.

But Florida, which extended its school record to 33 wins, had no trouble beating UCLA's vaunted defense.

The nation's top shooting team hit 44.8 percent and handed UCLA, which won three of the six most lopsided championship games in history, only its second loss in 13 championship game appearances.

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CELEBRITY STATUS: Among the celebrities attending Monday night's game were some notable UCLA graduates including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, who won a combined five national titles while playing for John Wooden; and actor Tim Robbins, who graduated from UCLA in 1981.

''I'm a huge fan of college basketball, and I take my kids to the Final Four every year,'' Robbins said. ''I got lucky this year that my alma mater is in it.''

Former UCLA coach Jim Harrick, who led the Bruins to their last championship in 1995, also attended the game and was sitting near former coach Jerry Tarkanian.

Florida had its own representatives.

Former UNLV star Sidney Green and 1983 French Open champion Yannick Noah, who both have sons starting for the Gators, watched from near courtside and Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who coached Florida coach Billy Donovan, wore a tie with Gators colors.

Two-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning also attended the game.

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CELEBRITY PICK: Give Jason McElwain credit for calling this one.

The autistic high school senior from Greece, N.Y., who became a national face after making six 3-pointers in the final four minutes of a game in February, picked Florida before the game. He said the Gators were ''too big'' for the Bruins.

McElwain sat with his father, David, near midcourt for the title game on a dream weekend for the family.

In the past several days, Jason met The Associated Press player of the year J.J. Redick, LSU's Glen Davis and Gonzaga's Adam Morrison. Before the title game, McElwain had a picture taken with Louisville coach Rick Pitino.

''This is one of the great dreams of all time,'' Jason McElwain said.

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TOP POINT: Dee Brown of Illinois won the Bob Cousy Point Guard Award for the nation's best small player.

Brown, who barely qualifies at 6 feet, led the Fighting Illini in scoring (14.2), assists (5.8), steals (1.6) and free throw shooting (75.7 percent) this season - and he graduated one semester early.

''I want to thank my mom for putting me in a basketball environment and coach Bruce Weber for putting the ball in my hands when he got to Illinois,'' Brown said.

Cousy, a Hall of Famer, introduced Brown in Indianapolis.

Megan Duffy of Notre Dame also won the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, which goes to the women's best small player. The 5-7 Duffy finished her career ranked in the top 10 of 11 categories at Notre Dame and scored in double figures 23 times this season. She is the second Notre Dame player to ever earn academic All-America honors.

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TOURNEY TIDBITS: Florida finished with a 20-0 mark against nonconference opponents. ... Monday night's matchup marked the second time since the tournament started in 1939 that the two teams in the title game had identical records. ... Donovan became the third person to play in a Final Four and win a national championship as a coach. ... UCLA appeared to be a safe bet when it beat LSU. The Tigers are now 0-4 in national semifinals, but the Bruins became the first team to beat LSU and then lose the title game.



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