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Sweet 16 open to 1s and all

3/22/2004

What a difference a second round makes. After watching 28 of 32 higher seeds win first-round games, the past 48 hours saw two No. 1s, a pair of No. 2s, a No. 3 and two more No. 4s all pack their bags and prepare to turn in their gear Monday morning.

  • The St. Louis Region suddenly has a 10943 ZIP code, where Kansas just may reach its third straight Final Four without having to beat a seed higher than No. 9 UAB.

  • Phoenix is without three of its top four seeds, as No. 8 Alabama and No. 6 Vanderbilt go West carrying the SEC banner to battle two teams from (where else) the Big East.

  • And, while Atlanta and East Rutherford will at least have their top seeds in town, banking on both Duke and Saint Joseph's to reach San Antonio isn't suggested.

    No team is safe. Not this week. Not in this Sweet 16.

    Not when being No. 1 in November, December or any other month was no fun to begin with.

    Which is just fine with Mo Finley. The likeable do-everything point guard from UAB, whose game-winning shot Sunday sent the Blazers past St. Louis No. 1 seed Kentucky on Sunday night, is just trying to broaden our horizons.

    "This gives the true college basketball fan a chance to see teams other than Kentucky and North Carolina and the traditional schools," said Finley said by phone after UAB's 76-75 victory.

    "This parity is great for college basketball, to have teams like us and Nevada in the Sweet 16. Hey, this is the tournament and crazy stuff happened and we squeaked out a win over the No. 1 seed Kentucky."

    And, as a result, UAB has the same shot to get to the Final Four as Connecticut, Oklahoma State or any other so-called favorite heading into the second week. All the Blazers have to do is win two more games, which may not be as difficult as deciphering just what "UAB" means is to those outside of Birmingham.

    "Everyone knows Kentucky and its rich tradition and history and all the titles they've won," Finley said. "They all know about Duke and Carolina, too. But the great thing about this tournament is that anyone can beat anybody. And we don't see any team that is unbeatable. We proved that today."

    Take a second and think about something. One of these four teams will leave St. Louis this time next week with a ticket to the Final Four: UAB, Kansas, Georgia Tech or Nevada. Yes, Kansas was part of the past two Final Fours, but the Jayhawks weren't picked to get much further than where they are today. Georgia Tech? Sure, the Yellow Jackets have been to a Final Four (1990) and play in the ACC. But few brackets outside of Lawrence and Atlanta have either team penciled into San Antonio -- let alone the Elite Eight.

    UAB and Nevada? Getting out of the first round was a stretch, let alone getting to the Sweet 16 with as equal a shot as 14 others to get to the Final Four. The same can be said of Saint Joseph's, Vanderbilt, Alabama, Xavier and Wake Forest.

    "Our goal was to win a national championship," UAB coach Mike Anderson said. "It takes six games, we've won two. These guys are hungry. We're playing good basketball right now."

    How big was Sunday's win for the Blazers? UAB hasn't been to the Sweet 16 since 1982, while Kentucky's seniors had never missed one until now. But, it's the Blazers who are that much closer to a Final Four -- a place Gerald Fitch and company will never see.

    "It's a big hole, not to reach a Final Four in your career, especially at Kentucky, a place known for national championships," Fitch said.

    The big boys still fill the majority of the Sweet 16 spots: three each from the Big 12, ACC and Big East. But the Atlantic 10 has as many as the SEC and the WAC and Conference USA are equal to the Big Ten with one. The Pac-10 is a no show.

    "What we've got is a diverse pool of fans and a diverse pool of schools,'' Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said Sunday night. "The casual fan might want to know about how Vanderbilt runs the Princeton offense and who is Kirk Snyder of Nevada, who Lionel Chalmers is at Xavier.

    "This is the beauty of this tournament, because it's not the nonsensical BCS. There are no meaningless bowl games. There is pure drama played out in front of millions of people. This is great for college basketball."

    But Martelli said having Duke and Kansas, and even Connecticut still in the Sweet 16 is a must, "Love them or hate them ... people have an opinion on them," Martelli said.

    "I'm all for democracy, so I'm not for always having the aristocracy," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said of the big-name schools like Kentucky and North Carolina not being in the Sweet 16. "There's nothing wrong with having schools like Vanderbilt in the Sweet 16. I'm not sure the television business likes it, but for someone who coached at Loyola and Xavier, and now in the ACC, it's a great thing."

    Prosser could wind up coaching against the team he helped built if Wake Forest makes its way to the Final Four. A matchup against Xavier wouldn't come until the national title game, but after the past 48 hours, who's to say such a game isn't possible?

    Heck, Alabama could wind up playing Vanderbilt for the right to represent the Phoenix Region in San Antonio.

    "How about that?" Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "I wouldn't be surprised. This is why college basketball is great. We finished where we did (8-8 in the SEC) and now Alabama has a chance to play for the national title in basketball. All 16 teams left have that chance.

    "It's a legitimate chance. Teams like Nevada and UAB have a chance too. How fun is that?"

    About as fun as it gets, actually. Unless, of course, you root for the teams left in this weekend's upset wake.

    Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.