All four 1s are still alive, for now
How do you like your Final Four?
Straight-up blue bloods, or with a dash of trailer trash? All A-listers, or with a couple of party crashers thrown in? A bourgeois affair, or a proletariat party?
History says that college basketball's final weekend is usually a mix of top dogs and (mild) underdogs. But from where we stand today, on the cusp of the Sweet 16, we're still in play for an unprecedented celebration of snobbery: All four No. 1 seeds could make it to Indianapolis.
Since the NCAA began publicly seeding its tournament in 1979, it's never happened before. In fact, it's rarely been close to happening.
There have been only four instances when all four No. 1s even reached the Elite Eight: 1987, 1993, 2001 and 2003. Two of the four (eventual champion Indiana and UNLV) advanced from there to the Final Four in '87; three (champ North Carolina, Fab Five Michigan and Kentucky) advanced in '93; two (champ Duke and Michigan State) advanced in '01; and just one (Texas) advanced in '03.
(If it didn't happen in '93, one of the greatest years ever for college basketball, it might never happen. The only No. 1 to miss the party was Indiana, which might have had the best team in the country until Alan Henderson hurt his knee late in the year. The Hoosiers were beaten in the regional final in St. Louis by No. 2 seed Kansas.)
So the odds are stacked heavily against Duke, Connecticut, Villanova and Memphis advancing en masse to Indy. Don't count on seeing it.
None of the four has relinquished the favorite's role in its respective region, but there is plenty of competition -- plus past precedent -- still blocking the path. Let's take a brief look at each No. 1's chances:
The Tigers won their first two games by the most points (32) of any No. 1 seed, and face the lowest remaining seed in the tournament Thursday (No. 13 Bradley). That's the good news if you're a Memphis fan.
The bad news is that Bradley has proven itself in this event by beating two trendy Final Four picks (Kansas and Pittsburgh). And not only have the Braves traveled a tougher tournament road, they played in a tougher conference (Missouri Valley vs. Conference USA).
Average RPI of Bradley's opponents in February and March: 88. Record against those opponents: 10-3.
Average RPI of Memphis' opponents in February and March: 140. Record against those opponents: 13-1.
Nevertheless, the Tigers are a solid favorite to make the Elite Eight and face either No. 2 seed UCLA or No. 3 Gonzaga, whereupon anything can happen. Top seeds are 4-4 in regional finals over the past three years, with all of the losses coming to No. 2s or No. 3s.
If you're into potential foreshadowing of a Memphis-UCLA Elite Eight game, there is one more thing to consider. The last time a No. 1 seed from outside a BCS conference made a regional final, it faced a No. 2 from a BCS league and lost: Oklahoma State 64, Saint Joseph's 62 in 2004.
The Blue Devils always make the Sweet 16, but don't always make the Final Four. Not even as a No. 1 seed.
Seven times in the previous eight tournaments, Duke has toted a top seed into a regional. Four times it has been upset short of the Final Four.
Over that period of time, Duke's record is much better against an easier Sweet 16 road than a hard one. The Blue Devils are 3-5 against teams seeded fifth or better and 4-0 against teams seeded sixth or worse.
Last year, top-seeded Duke lost to fifth-seeded Michigan State in the regional semis. In 2003, No. 3 seed Duke lost to No. 2 seed Kansas in the semis. In 2002, top-seeded and defending national champion Duke was stunned by No. 5 seed Indiana in the semis. (In 2004, top-seeded Duke did beat No. 5 Illinois and then No. 7 Xavier to make the Final Four.)
Given that recent precedent, the Blue Devils' road to the Final Four looks daunting. First up is No. 4 seed LSU and its powerhouse front line. Should Duke escape that challenge, it will face either No. 2 Texas or No. 6 West Virginia. History says the Dookies will be rooting for the Mountaineers in that one.
On paper, no top seed has it easier at this stage than UConn. The Huskies don't have anyone seeded higher than fifth left between them and the Final Four, and none of the Little Three in D.C. -- Washington, Wichita State and George Mason -- has any meaningful pedigree of March success.
George Mason had never won an NCAA Tournament game prior to last week. Washington last made the Final Four in 1953. Wichita State is the tradition-soaked member of the Little Three, making a regional final in 1981 and the Final Four in 1965.
(Of course, in the mid-60s all it took to make the Final Four was two wins. Once the Shockers reached the Final Four they gave up 226 points in two losses, back in the time of the third-place game).
But as easy as things look on paper for UConn, it should be noted that the Huskies also have struggled more than any other No. 1 seed this tournament. They've won their last six games as a top seed, dating back to 1999, but it's been ugly and anxiety-ridden this time around.
They trailed No. 16 seed Albany by 12 midway through the second half, and didn't put away No. 8 Kentucky until the final minute. If it weren't for point guard Marcus Williams, UConn would be eliminated by now.
So the Huskies will have to play better to beat an explosive Washington team, then avoid what would be an epic choke in a regional final against one of the two Cinderellas left in D.C. If UConn doesn't make it to Indy, it will have some explaining to do.
The Wildcats look like they're in the toughest spot in Minneapolis.
First up is old Big East brethren Boston College, which has a front line that should be a matchup nightmare for Nova. In BC's 6-foot-10 shot blocker Sean Williams, 250-pound power forward Craig Smith and rugged 6-7 Jared Dudley, Villanova's MidgetBall team will be up against it inside.
Of course, the converse will be true as well: BC's big guys will have to chase Villanova's little guys around the floor, and popular math says that 3-point shots count for more than two. But the Wildcats still are fighting decades of precedent that says size matters in basketball.
If Villanova should beat Boston College and advance to its first regional final since 1988, it will find more matchup issues there.
If the opponent is Florida, the Wildcats must contend with athletic big men Joakim Noah and Al Horford. And the Gators do not lack perimeter quickness, either.
Or if the opponent is Georgetown, Villanova gets to guard 7-2 Roy Hibbert and 6-9 forwards Jeff Green and Brandon Bowman. Nova did beat the Hoyas by 10 during the regular season, but Georgetown is playing better since then.
History tells that some combination of these four top seeds is going down short of Indianapolis -- and this is no time to argue with history. We just don't know which teams won't make it, or who knocks them off.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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