On a scale from 1 to 10, tourney was a missed 3


SEATTLE -- The NCAA tournament was something less than a classic this year. If it were a car, it would be a white sedan.

Where were the great games? Where were the great players? Where were the great moments?

With all due respect to UCLA, which played brilliantly in beating Arkansas in Monday night's final, the symbol of the tournament was a missed three-point shot. Of which there were many.

Not that there weren't some moments and performances worth framing, understand. The first weekend had a spate of thriller games, such as Villanova-Old Dominion, Syracuse-Arkansas, UCLA-Missouri and Penn-Alabama. UCLA's Tyus Edney was splendid throughout. His air-walking teammate, Toby Bailey, was outrageous in the final.

But after the first weekend, and aside from Edney and Bailey, there were few memorable games or performances.

The tournament's last two weeks, when the good ball supposedly is played, were marked mostly by promising matchups that failed to deliver because one team went clank.

Maryland-Connecticut figured to be the best of the regional semifinals, but the Terps played one of their worst games of the season and got blown out.

North Carolina-Kentucky in the Southeast Regional final figured to be the best game of the entire tournament, but Kentucky played so horribly and missed so many open three-pointers that coach Rick Pitino was left without an explanation. Quite a feat.

Arkansas-North Carolina in the national semifinals figured to be first-rate, and it was indeed close at the end, but it was hardly a classic. Carolina went almost 13 minutes without a basket in the second half, sinking in a hail of missed three-pointers.

The top teams that were eliminated before the Final Four did so with ugly performances, not with nobility. Kansas was a virtual no-show against Virginia. UMass was terrible against Oklahoma State, Wake Forest only slightly better.

Arkansas was mediocre in losing the final, but no more so than it often was in winning five games to get that far. The Razorbacks should have lost to Syracuse and Memphis earlier.

And where were the big games from the big-name players? There weren't many. Of the first-team All-Americans, Shawn Respert and Damon Stoudamire were bounced in the first round, Joe Smith was relatively quiet and Jerry Stackhouse came up injured and empty in the Final Four. Ed O'Bannon didn't play All-American ball until Monday night.

In the end, the most satisfying development was that UCLA won playing a sound, old-fashioned style of ball, with players actually driving hard to the basket instead of settling for three-pointers.

As exciting as the three-point shot is, it has taken over the thinking of too many coaches and players. (Arkansas attempted more than 800 during the season. Somebody stop them!) The game has gotten lazy in a way, relying far too much on the jump shot.

It was nice to see the winners rewarded for going to the trouble of going to the basket.

And lest you think that the opinion here was that the tournament was all letdowns, here are the superlatives:

Best game -- Old Dominion over Villanova in three overtimes. An epic.

Best performance -- Edney. Even if he didn't play in the championship game, he got UCLA there with the niftiest little-man show since Muggsy Bogues.

Best member of the media -- Former Oriole Jim Traber, now a screamin' talk-show guy in Oklahoma. "At least I wasn't a replacement player," he said. He complained to tournament officials that the writer sitting next to him was making too many disparaging remarks about Oklahoma State during Saturday's semifinal loss to UCLA.

Best ejection -- Jack Nicholson showed up Saturday without a ticket, demanded and got CBS credentials for six people in his entourage, then settled in to wait for tip-off in the press center -- and got booted by some dour NCAA guy. We love Jack, but he was big-timin' it big time.

Best double double -- George Zidek, national championship with UCLA, first-team national All-Academic (economics major, 3.77 GPA).

Best surprise for UCLA -- That Arkansas' Corliss Williamson didn't destroy Zidek, as he had countless other big, immobile post players.

Best moment -- After O'Bannon received the Final Four MVP award, he grabbed the microphone, pointed to Edney and shouted to the crowd, "There's the real MVP!"

Best reason not to trust college basketball coaches with directing the future of America's youth -- In a newspaper poll printed on the morning of the final, 29 of 34 coaches picked Arkansas to beat UCLA.

Best indecipherable coffee order overheard in this coffee-crazed city -- "I'll have a half-caf caffe latte, with room, [unintelligible] and twist it." You talkin' to me?

Best overplayed angle -- The burden on UCLA because of John Wooden's success. As if anyone in L.A. gets upset about anything other than his or her own career.

Best direct link to O. J. trial -- L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti, spotted in front of media hotel (please fill in end of thought).

Best performance by a team picked by this columnist in November to make the Final Four -- North Carolina. (Other three picks: Kentucky, Alabama, Kansas. The dirty, stinkin' dogs.)

Best performance by an NCAA tournament that helped keep our minds off the baseball strike during a pathetic spring training -- Maybe it wasn't a classic tournament, but it beat replacement-game box scores by a mile.

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