A Tourney to Savor

In previewing the Albuquerque and Chicago regional finals, Frank Burlison says the NCAA Tournament already has been one of the best in a long time.

Here's something to keep in mind, as you plop down in front of your big screen Saturday for four-plus hours of action from the Albuquerque and Chicago regional finals:

Savor the moment, because what we've gotten out of the NCAA tournament so far is about as good as a tourney as has been produced in a long, long time.

From the near-piggyback upsets of Vermont (over Syracuse) and Bucknell (over Kansas) on March 18 ... to the stunning performance after intermission while scoring 84 points and knocking off Wake Forest in double-overtime the next night ... to Bob Knight reminding us why he's the greatest coach of his generation ... to Louisville (against Georgia Tech and Washington) playing 80 minutes of marvelous basketball in its past two games, it's been a tournament to savor.

And Arizona and Oklahoma State, in the Salim-Stoudamire, jump-shot-nailing, 79-78 victory for the Wildcats Thursday night, gave a collective performance that we can only wish the teams that go on the floor in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on April 4 can remotely approach.

So enjoy the regional finals Saturday and Sunday (in Austin and Syracuse), and the Final Four next weekend before the NBA takes over the airways in earnest.

I know – an absolutely sterile image.

On to Albuquerque ...

On Jan. 25, after losing a 10-point decision at home to Connecticut, the West Virginia Mountaineers were 1-5 in the Big East Conference. Saturday, at approximately 2:30 p.m. Mountain Time, they take the floor in the Pit to face Louisville with the school's first spot in a Four Four since 1959 on the line.

Amazing, isn't it?

No team has executed better than the Mountaineers, at both ends of the floor, during the final five minutes of games since the tournament began. Logically, this is why they are oh-so-close to getting an extended weekend in St. Louis.

But one of the great stories of the tournament, courtesy of John Beilein's team's two-, six- and five-point victories over Creighton, Wake Forest and Texas Tech, seems most likely to come to a conclusion Saturday at the hands of Rick Pitino's Cardinals.

Louisville used a 2-3 zone as its half-court defensive staple in order to contain top seed Washington's ability to penetrate off the dribble. I'd look for Pitino to have his guys get out and pressure the West Virginia ballhandlers and passers hard and try to create a much faster-paced tempo than the Mountaineers, for example, played at against Texas Tech.

And Pitino has many more skilled offensive players, on the post and on the perimeter, than Texas Tech was able to put on the floor Thursday night.

Barring a performance superior to anything West Virginia has turned in so far, Pitino will be taking a third program (he took Providence in 1987 and Kentucky in 1993, 1996 and 1997) to a Final Four.

In the Chicago regional, the matchup between the best team all season, Illinois, and the region's third seed, Arizona, is definitely one of those "national-championship-caliber" games that, unfortunately, isn't going to be contested on the final night of the season.

Even with the friendly locale (the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, a suburb of Chicago), this is going to be the toughest challenge of the season for the Illini, much more so than were games with Gonzaga, Wake Forest and Cincinnati, and, within the Big Ten Conference, at Wisconsin and Michigan State – and even Ohio State, which handed them their only loss.

Channing Fry is the best big man Illinois has faced this season and Salim Stoudamire the best scoring backcourt player Bruce Weber's team has had to deal with.

But the same elements that have made Illinois the best team in the country from the get-go this season – stunning backcourt play, a vastly underrated post game, extreme selflessness, sound and dependable defense and the vastly, vastly under-appreciated coaching ability of Weber – are still in place.

And that's why Weber and his guys will be in the Edward Jones Dome next weekend.

Recently elected to the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's National Basketball Expert and also covers college basketball for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com.

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