Razor-Close Regionals

Like Saturday's, Sunday's regional finals get two overtimes, but in a single game, and what passes for a blowout, six points.

Expecting a couple of regional finals Sunday that could approach what we were served up Saturday in Albuquerque and Rosemont (Ill.) would have been way too much to ask for.

But what we got wasn't bad, that's for sure.

After the overtime victories by Louisville and Illinois in the Saturday regional finals, North Carolina's 88-82 victory over Wisconsin in Syracuse could have passed for a blowout – even thought the Tar Heels trailed by five points early in the second half and would have fallen behind by a point if a jumper by the Badgers' Kammron Taylor wouldn't have fallen off the rim with three minutes to play.

What took place later Sunday in Austin was more attuned to the theme of the weekend, though: Closer and closer.

Michigan State needed two overtimes and six free throws in the final 12 seconds to hold off Kentucky 94-88.

The Spartans might have been in their locker room, while the Wildcats were modeling their Final Four hats and trimming nets, if Kentucky hadn't came up empty on the last possession of the first regulation. Rajon Rondo seemed to dribble in place about 30 feet from the basket for some eight seconds, before handing off to Kelenna Azubuike with four seconds to go. Azubuike then dribbled into the right corner and couldn't a shot off before the buzzer sounded.

Of course, there wouldn't have been a first overtime if Patrick Sparks hadn't thrown in a three-pointer at the buzzer following a frantic scramble to cap a 13-5 run by Kentucky.

And the Wildcats – and Spartans – had to hold their collective breathes while the game's three officials reviewed replays from various angles and various speeds of Sparks' shot, to see if Sparks‘ right toe had grazed the three-point line, rendering the shot only worth two points and giving Michigan State clearance to land in St. Louis later this week.

Modern technology: Isn't it something?

Over and beyond their free throws in the closing moments of the second overtime, the Spartans of Tom Izzo are Final Four-bound because of a remarkable offensive stretch in the second half, when they hit 15 of 18 field-goal attempts to take a late eight-point lead.

The almost constant foul trouble to senior forward Chuck Hayes and freshman point guard Rondo hamstrung the Wildcats' offense throughout, although freshman center Randolph Morris more than held up his end of the bargain against MSU junior Paul Davis with 20 points.

Tubby Smith's teams now have come up short in regional finals in two of three years. Still, even with the loss of Hayes, the Wildcats should be a considerably better offensive unit next season and seem likely to be a consensus preseason Top Five choice.

Wisconsin, which seemed helpless, at times, in its attempts to slow down the Tar Heels' transition attack Sunday, loses standout senior post players Mike Wilkinson and Zach Morley, as well as senior guards Sharif Chambliss and Clayton Hanson.

But the Badgers' 6-foot-5 sophomore forward Alando Tucker, who had 25 points Sunday after dropping 22 on North Carolina State Friday night, should be an All-America a year from now when he and his teammates make another deep run in the NCAA tournament.

As for North Carolina and Michigan State, the only futures they're plotting are the ones that will intersect when the teams meet up for a couple of hours Saturday night in the Edwards Jones Dome.

Their victories set up a dandy double-dip Saturday, with their game following the clash between Illinois and Louisville.

Even as we anticipate what should be a cool couple of games Saturday and a marvelous – regardless who wins the semifinals – April 4 final, we shouldn't lose sight of how easily an entirely different set of teams could be hooking up in the Edward Jones Dome.

A single made, or missed, shot in regulation could have changed the outcome of Saturday's finals, as well as the MSU-Kentucky game Sunday.

The same could be said of the Tar Heels' 67-66 semifinal victory over Villanova in a game that didn't end until early Saturday morning in the Carrier Dome.

Once more, the word we should use freely these days is "parity."

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. Read more of Burlison's pieces at FrankHoops.com

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