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EXCITEMENT SURROUNDING FINAL FOUR RISING

EXCITEMENT SURROUNDING FINAL FOUR RISING

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For the first time since the NCAA Tournament was expanded to 64 teams, Cinderella won't be invited to the Final Four party when the college basketball season draws to a close this weekend in Denver's McNichols Arena.

Duke, Georgia Tech, Nevada-Las Vegas and Arkansas get together Saturday for the national semifinals. And though it has been a tournament full of surprises, the fact that those teams are there is not a surprise.And that's a switch.

In 1985, the first year the tournament was expanded to 64 teams, Villanova, a No. 8 seed, not only showed up, the Wildcats won the national championship. A year later, 11th-seeded LSU joined No. 1 seeds Duke and Kansas and No. 2 Louisville.

In 1987, sixth-seeded Providence crashed the party with top seeds Indiana and UNLV and No. 2 Syracuse. Sixth-seeded Kansas won the title the following year in a field that included No. 2 seed Duke and top seeds Oklahoma and Arizona. And last season, upstart Seton Hall, which was seeded No. 3 but began the season as an unknown, joined No. 1 Illinois, No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Michigan.

What makes this season different is that only one No. 1 seed - UNLV - survived. Duke was a No. 3 seed, Tech and Arkansas seeded fourth.

So, how come most everyone is saying there's no Cinderella? What about Tech, Duke and Arkansas?

It's parity, that word coaches have thrown around for years and years. The four coaches who have been lucky enough to survive until this weekend insist it's here to stay.

During the tournament's 60 games, 17 have been decided by two points or less and 29 have been decided by four points or less. There have been seven one-point games.

The excitement level has never been higher. The coaches had a chance to speak on that subject and others Wednesday during a national teleconference.

``I believe there are no upsets in the tournament,' said Arkansas' Nolan Richardson, who will send his 30-4 Razorbacks against 28-8 Duke Saturday at 5:42 EST. ``The teams, coaches and players now are so much different from what they used to be.

``If you took this year's tournament and played it again, you might have four different teams reaching the Final Four. That's what's exciting, not the dominance of one team.'

Saturday's second game sends UNLV, 33-5, against Tech, 28-6.

UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian said the proof of parity is ``how well the number 16 seeds played the number one seeds.'

Michigan State, No. 1 in the Southeast, had to go overtime to beat Murray State 75-71. Oklahoma, No. 1 in the Midwest, beat Towson State 77-68. Connecticut, No. 1 in the East, beat Boston University 76-52, but the game was close well into the second half. The only team to fly in the face of Tarkanian's argument was his own. The Runnin' Rebs pounded Arkansas-Little Rock 102-72.

``After what has happened in the tournament,' Tarkanian said, ``I don't think the coaches were as surprised as the media.'

Tech's Bobby Cremins, who has seen the last 16 Final Fours, all as a spectator, said ``there is no question parity has set in.'

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski said ``it's amazing how well the players have performed under pressure,' and that the tournament ``is the best it's ever been.' He also called the tournament ``the best sporting event in the world.'

With what has gone on so far, the Final Four may have a ways to go to match the excitement and drama.

One thing that could separate this Final Four from others is style of play. There are no walk-it-up-the-court teams in the field. All four play up-tempo games fueled by high-octane defense and perimeter shooters.

Arkansas averages 95.9 points per game, UNLV 93.3, Duke 89.3 and Tech 88.7. UNLV has gone over the 100-point mark 15 times, Arkansas 13, Duke 10 and Tech six. The Razorbacks scored 161 points in a game this year, while UNLV is coming off a 131-point performance in the West Regional finals against Loyola Marymount.

Richardson and Krzyzewski said they did not think the teams would see any change in style or performance during the Final Four. Richardson said the scores ``should at least be in the 80s.'

But Tarkanian and Cremins were a little more cautious.

``When you get to the Final Four,' said Tarkanian, who is making his third trip, ``you tend to be more cautious and afraid of mistakes. I don't think you'll see the teams score as much.'

Cremins said ``the atmosphere and the pressure make you tighten the reins.'

UNLV, thanks to that scary performance against Loyola Marymount - at least it's scary for the other three coaches - is in the uneasy role of favorite.

``Tark the Shark has the front line and the chemistry,' Richardson said.

``After the Loyola game,' said Tech's Bobby Cremins, ``you'd have to say they are the team to beat.'

But Tarkanian did a masterful dance around the question of who's the favorite.

``There is no clear-cut favorite,' he said. ``If you had taken a poll after the Ball State game (won by Vegas 69-67), no one would have picked us. All four teams are equal, about as equal as you'll find.'

That's equal as in no Cinderella. No matter who wins the title, no one should be surprised.

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