Wednesday February 23rd, 2005

I'm on Day 2 of a two-week odyssey around the country for Sports Illustrated, so we'll just jump right into this week's questions:

Over the past five years, 60 percent of the Final Four teams have been one or two seeds from the six major conferences. The only team not from a "major" conference was Marquette from the near-major Conference-USA. The other Final Four teams were three-seeds or lower from major conferences: Florida, Wisconsin and UNC in 2000, Maryland in 2001, Indiana in 2002, Syracuse in 2003 and Georgia Tech in 2004. If history repeats, there will be at least one of these teams in the Final Four this year. For simplicity's sake, if you eliminate the current top eight teams, who would you go with as the major conference team to "sneak" in? -- Shawn Swenson, Madison, Wis.

Good question, Shawn. I can't get over how many times I've seen people picking the top-four ranked teams in the country to reach the Final Four. The fact is, when filling out my bracket, I almost always pick only two No. 1 seeds to get there. (Look for my rules on filling out a bracket in an upcoming 'Bag.) I'll give you five teams outside the top eight that wouldn't surprise me if they reached St. Louis:

Arizona: The Wildcats are peaking at the right time and are hoping to ride Salim Stoudamire to a title just as Lute Olson's '97 bunch did with Miles Simon.

Gonzaga: If the Bulldogs can defend well, their remarkable offensive firepower (and big-game cojones, a difference from last year's team) could take them to St. Louis.

Pittsburgh: The Panthers have won too many tough Big East games on the road (at Syracuse and UConn) to be discounted from the national-title chase.

Syracuse: Despite some recent losses, the Orange always have an advantage with its zone defense, and I'm getting signals that players outside the Hakim Warrick-Gerry McNamara-Josh Pace troika may be starting to heat up.

Washington: The Huskies have looked tired of late, but we think they'll rev things back up when it counts.

I have a question for Lute Olson: Which Pac-10 team is throwing out the lockdown defense that Salim Stoudamire is shredding on his way to 56 percent shooting from 3-point range? Not to take anything away from a guy shooting 56 percent -- against big-conference talent, that's flat-out impressive -- but I wonder how well he'd be doing if he had to face Maryland, Georgia Tech, UNC, NC State, etc. every night. I've heard a lot of great things about Washington, but its defense isn't one of them. -- Devin Gordon, New York City

I knew we could count on someone east of the Mississippi to fire a shot across the bow of the S.S. Olson and compare the defenses that Stoudamire and J.J. Redick have been facing in-conference. To answer your question, the ACC does defend better than the Pac-10. When it comes to field-goal percentage defense, the average rank of the ACC teams (minus Duke) nationally is 134; the average rank of the Pac-10 teams (minus Arizona) nationally is 179. Yet I would still argue that Stoudamire's sick 3-point shooting percentage is due more to what Stoudamire is doing than what defenses are not, and lost in the side-by-side comparisons is the fact that Redick and Stoudamire both are having tremendous seasons. At no time was that more evident than last Sunday when Redick went for 38 against Wake Forest and Stoudamire had 31 against Oregon State (and didn't even play in the final nine minutes).

Got a lot of letters after my argument last week that "East Coast bias" isn't what it's made out to be. The following note from Rich Schmidt of Eugene, Ore., sums up many of those reactions:

To me the issue is not that commentators or sportswriters are rooting for one team over another. The issue is coverage: who gets it and who doesn't. I have rarely felt like a broadcaster or journalist cared much about the outcome of a game. I have frequently felt that their opinions were based on incomplete evidence, since they only watch half the teams play.

Good point, Rich. There certainly are some less-informed college-hoops analysts and reporters out there who don't keep up with the goings-on out West as much as they should. In my mind, though, the explosion of media coverage means that finding well-informed outlets you trust and respect is more important than ever (whether the subject is sports, news or anything else). I'd also argue that there are several college-hoops pundits worth paying attention to (some of whom work for places other than SI). My point is that angry fans should spend less time bellyaching about the commentators and writers they don't like -- and more time reading or listening to the ones they find worthwhile.

One last thing: We're henceforth retiring the term "bias" from the 'Bag. It's a word that has lost almost all its meaning at a time when many Americans have appropriated it as an accusatory catch-all, most often for half-baked conspiracy theories about the media.

Do you think it is easier to build a contending team in today's game without top high-school recruits than it was before players left college early or went straight to the NBA out of high school? Boston College's Al Skinner seems to have a winning formula: Recruit so-called "lower-tier" players he knows will play for four years, and build a team that is familiar with each other and well-coached. -- Pat McCabe, Hamilton, Ontario

I don't think it's ever easy to build a contender, but the playing field certainly has been leveled over the past decade as fewer elite talents have played college ball for four years. Most of those elite-level players tended to go to a select number of schools, which means mid-majors and mid-level big-conference teams (like BC) have an opportunity to build real teams over time with solid talent and good coaching. The result is a college game with more parity, more potential champions and (I would argue) more excitement.

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