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Final Four: Three will leave St. Louis heartbroken, one won't

Posted: Thursday, March 31, 2005

One is a 48-year-old newcomer.

Two have rings, two don't.

Three will leave St. Louis heartbroken, one won't.

Crunch the numbers any way you want. What they guarantee is a very intriguing Final Four.

Illinois' Bruce Weber, the only member of the coaching quartet who's never ventured this deep into the NCAA tournament, has been calling friends in the business for tips on what to expect.

''He's a 3-point shot at the buzzer from being perfect this season,'' joked Louisville's Rick Pitino, whose Cardinals face the Illini in the first semifinal Saturday night. ''He doesn't need any advice from me.''

''I told him to get rid of his ticket and hotel problems by Sunday or Monday,'' added Michigan State's Tom Izzo. ''The first time we went, I think I was still dealing with that stuff all the way through Friday.''

Experience was the central theme during a teleconference Wednesday featuring the four finalists. While Pitino and Izzo have already won national championships, and North Carolina's Roy Williams is at the Final Four for the fifth time as a head coach, they have nothing on Weber in what might be the most important factor in that equation.

After scanning all four rosters, Izzo came up with only one player who's even been to a Final Four, and that's his own Tim Bograkos, a fifth-year senior and former walk-on.

By the same token, all four teams are led by upperclassmen, which the coaches agreed was the difference in getting this far in what has been an upset-filled, last-gasp tournament so far. The top high school seniors and underclassmen continue to depart for the NBA, but the depth of talent and experience on the Final Four teams proves the top coaches, at least, have learned to adapt.

''If you look at the last six, seven, eight years, teams like UConn, I think all those teams had plenty of juniors and seniors. The only exception was Syracuse,'' said Izzo, with a nod toward Carmelo Anthony, ''and they just happened to have one of the greatest players in the game.''

But finding a way to close the experience gap among players wasn't the only change the coaches have had to deal with in recent years.

The 3-point shot has become more prominent as more and more teams employed a version of the zone defense that brought Syracuse and Jim Boeheim a national title, and that has forced coaches to adapt on both ends of the floor. But that trend has also tempted too many players to hoist long-range shots at inopportune moments.

Asked what he was thinking about watching all those treys being thrown up from all over the floor during last weekend's games, Williams deadpanned, ''The first thing I start looking for is the closest exit I can sneak out.''

But that may be because Carolina has Sean May, arguably the best big man left in the tournament, and prefers to run its offense from the inside out.

''I like it,'' said Weber, whose team put up almost three dozen 3s in a furious comeback win against Arizona in overtime. ''When it first became a rule, it became a thing where it was used too much. I think last week was just unusual.''

''I've been saying for seven years that the 3-point shot is too close,'' Pitino said. ''We shouldn't move to the NBA distance, but back to the Olympic line, because it would make for even better spacing on the floor.''

But that debate will have to wait until the National Association of Basketball Coaches holds its next coffee klatch. For the time being, shooting and defending the 3, protecting the ball, and keeping players calm and confident in late-game situations is more than enough for the coaches to worry about heading into the biggest weekend of the season.

They all know Lady Luck will play a part at some point, but courting her can be a dicey proposition. Williams began a tradition of spitting in a river near the tournament site when he was an assistant at Kansas, and has been kidded about it often enough to chuckle, ''maybe I should market it.''

The results have been mixed, but that won't necessarily keep Williams or any of his three rivals from searching out any edge they can find.

''You never can tell,'' Williams said, ''I just may sneak out and do it again.''



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