Searching for this year's dark horse
WASHINGTON — The hunt for this year's George Mason fizzled when no double-digit seeds advanced to the NCAA tournament's round of 16, but the search for the reincarnation of last year's somewhat improbable national champion has intensified.
Even though all the top seeds remain alive, analysts and fans are obsessing over tagging surging upstarts with a this-year's-Florida label, trying to identify a team capable of going from unranked preseason afterthought to national champion.
Six teams fit the profile because, like Florida last year, they were unranked to start the season. But the trajectory of Oregon's resurgent season most closely parallels that of last year's champions, even though the guard-oriented Ducks have markedly different personnel than the 2006 Gators and lack an overwhelming interior presence such as Florida's Joakim Noah.
"It is pretty similar in terms of how their seasons went," said independent tournament analyst Jerry Palm, who will cover both Oregon and Florida in the Midwest Region for CSTV. "Having the actual ability to pull it off is going to be difficult because of what lies ahead. If Oregon makes the Final Four, it will be a pretty good story. But you've got to write it now because they probably won't get there."
In other words, if both schools advance to meet in Sunday's regional final in St. Louis, this year's Florida will be expected to beat "this year's Florida." Then again, at this juncture last season, few predicted that the Gators were en route to the title.
Little was expected last season from Florida, which received just six votes in the Associated Press preseason poll. The Gators started hot (17-0), then slumped with three consecutive late-season losses and finished the regular season with a computer rating in the mid-20s. Florida won the Southeastern Conference tournament, earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and faced a No. 7 seed (Georgetown) in the round of 16.
Little was expected this season from Oregon, which received only one vote in the preseason poll. The Ducks started hot (13-0), then slumped with three consecutive late-season losses and finished the regular season with a computer rating in the mid-20s. Oregon won its conference tournament, earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and will face a No. 7 seed (UNLV) in the round of 16.
Florida coach Billy Donovan entered last season with the reputation of a successful recruiter who, aside from making the Final Four in 2000, struggled in the tournament. Oregon's Ernie Kent began this season under decidedly more scrutiny and with highly recruited players, namely guards Aaron Brooks and Malik Hairston, who had underachieved.
Brooks said the difference this season has been accountability. Rather than assume the Ducks would be good, Brooks said the team adopted a renewed commitment to preseason conditioning. "We knew we had to put the pieces together, and the seasons before this we did not put the pieces together," he added.
Three-point shooting has been integral to helping Oregon win more games than any Ducks team since 1944-45. Most recently, though, improved defense has played a large factor in their success in the Pacific-10 and NCAA tournaments.
"You make defense your focal point," Oregon guard Bryce Taylor said, "and allow that to lead to easy transition and fast-break points and continue to play at the high level where we don't let too many possessions get by where we don't have slip-ups or breakdowns. We take advantage of the opportunity."
The other five teams still in the tournament that were unranked to start the season include two other schools from power leagues — Southern California and Vanderbilt — and three schools from smaller conferences — Butler, Southern Illinois and Nevada-Las Vegas.
The Ducks are well tested after competing in a conference that was rated third nationally. Texas coach Rick Barnes, whose Longhorns competed in the same first-round site in the tournament as USC and Oregon, said it was apparent early in the season that the Pac-10 was underrated. That sentiment was bolstered by the performances of Oregon and the Trojans, who Barnes said have "as good a chance as anyone right now."
"It's a special league and we have referred to that all season long," USC coach Tim Floyd said.
Unlike Oregon, success has come a year early at USC. The Trojans won't get one of the nation's most celebrated recruits, guard O.J. Mayo, until next season and still are overshadowed by UCLA, which reached the national title game last season and still is alive this year.
"We're still the underdogs and that's great for us right now," USC guard-forward Nick Young said. "Later on down in the future, SC will be one of those UCLAs, those North Carolinas, those teams they mention in the top five because we got a great recruiting class coming in."
Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall, whose team lost to Oregon in the second round, said George Mason's run to the Final Four last year "woke up some of these giants" and established that elite smaller-conference teams would continue to succeed. That might be true, but searching for this year's George Mason already is a lost cause, and finding this year's Florida might be a hopeless endeavor by next week.
The prevailing sentiment is that the giants will continue to rule.
"We look for the team this year that is similar to the team last year, when in fact every tournament and team is different," Palm said. "We spent the whole winter looking for the next Mason, when it doesn't exist. This year's Florida doesn't exist either. This year's Florida has a better chance of beating 'this year's Florida.'"