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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 21, 2010

Lopresti column: There are no Cinderellas in this tournament


MILWAUKEE Talk about your messy parties.

While they sweep up the debris from the first week - a sliver of Kansas, a shred of Villanova, a remnant of Georgetown - we should heed the message.

This is an NCAA Tournament with no ceiling. Anything is possible.

Northern Iowa in the Final Four? Cornell? Butler? St. Mary's? Xavier? These are not booster club hallucinations. They are genuine possibilities.

"Seeds don't mean nothing, when you come to the NCAA Tournament," Ohio State's David Lighty was saying here Sunday after the Buckeyes advanced.

Especially this NCAA Tournament.

Lighty plays for one of the favorites left standing - the Buckeyes the team to beat in the Midwest, with Kansas gone. Presumably. But they and the other high seeds look outside and see danger; Cinderellas with no thought of midnight.

"We're all grown men," Ohio State All-American Evan Turner said, "Everybody's capable. Everybody's confident."

Take Cornell. The Big Red didn't slip in the backdoor as the first Ivy League team to make the Sweet 16 in 31 years. They beat two ranked teams by 13 and 18 points.

Take Northern Iowa. The 3-pointer that killed off Kansas - one of the great all-in bets in tournament memory - was taken by Ali Farokhmanesh without hesitation or fear. It was a moment sincerely admired by a bigger-name shooter hundreds of miles away.

"Wow," Turner said Sunday. "That kid had guts."

Take St. Mary's. The Gaels acted as if they had Villanova at hello.

"Everybody wants to make it seem like it's a big gap. It's not a big gap," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said at his press conference Sunday after the Orange advanced. "If you don't play really well, you're going to get beat. Simple as that."

So here's a Sweet 16 from underdog heaven.

Cornell had never even won an NCAA Tournament game until Friday. Before the past weekend, St. Mary's and Northern Iowa had one win each.

Baylor, before this month, had not won a tournament game since 1950.

On the first day of this tournament, four games were won with shots in the last 4.9 seconds. Michigan State beat another buzzer Sunday. So did Purdue.

By Sunday night, six of the eight entrants from the ballyhooed Big East were gone.

All-Americans put up enough bricks to build a school. Kansas' Sherron Collins, Villanova's Scottie Reynolds, Notre Dame's Luke Harangody and Oklahoma State's James Anderson were a combined 11-or-47 in defeat.

Taking their place at center stage were guys you probably don't know, some with names you probably can't spell.

Farokhmanesh shot not one but two teams out of the tournament.

St. Mary's has nearly as many Australians as a Melbourne bus, and also a Muslim center, Omar Samhan, who tormented Villanova, and asked for more.

"I want to play the best big (center) every night," he said. "Let's see how good you really are."

Xavier took out Pittsburgh with the unstoppable Indiana transfer, Jordan Crawford.

Theoretically, the top four seeds in each region should be playing next week. But of those 16, only 8 survived.

This is why the tournament is unique among our sport diversions. So much of the good stuff comes early. A title will be decided in a couple of weeks, and the Kentucky bandwagon has started looking like a department store the Friday after Thanksgiving. But every sport crowns a champion.

These first days, when the bracket shook, are what make this event so wonderfully mad.

This unrest did not spread to every high seed. Kentucky won its first two games by an average of 29.5, Syracuse by 22.5, Duke by 22. But the warning is clear.

"I don't think there's a mid-major anymore when you get to the NCAA Tournament," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "I've got five guys in the NBA that have been drafted in the first round that should have been playing today."

Meanwhile, Cornell has eight seniors, and Butler a locker room full of juniors.

"Those things start adding up and it makes it all even," Matta said. "You get on a neutral court, the parity in basketball today is incredible."

He should see at the moment from Bill Self's seat.

"It's a tough reality," the Kansas coach said after the Jayhawks were knocked out.

Tough, but utterly fascinating to watch.

Contact Mike Lopresti at mlopresti@gannett.com