The madness begins as teams make early Final Four bid

By The Columbia Chronicle

With the NBA fighting over a billion-dollar pot, the only way to satisfy a basketball fix is by watching the college game.

Even though the NBA draft has been severely depleted college basketball, there are still some great players remaining. More importantly, three dominant teams still occupy the land. Duke, Stanford and Connecticut all look like clear-cut favorites to reach next year’s Final Four.

However, this leaves one spot open for a Cinderella. The 1999 version of last year’s Utah team and the 1996 edition of the Arizona Wildcats. This year’s team that will achieve this unexpected March success will be the Washington Huskies.

On paper, Duke looks like far and away the best team in the country. They are preseason No. 1 and have the nation’s deepest team. The Blue Devils are led by All-American center Elton Brand. During the Goodwill Games, Brand showed himself as one of the most dominant low-post players in the country.

Last year, Duke started out 11-0 in route to a No. 1 ranking. After that, the team was very inconsistent as Brand missed two months of the season with a broken foot. Duke is loaded at every position.

Sharpshooter Trajan Langdon is a fifth-year senior who averaged almost 15 points a game in ‘97. Langdon and Brand give the team a great inside/outside threat.

This team, comprised of six sophomores, received a valuable education in last year’s regional final aganist Kentucky. Duke blew a double-digit lead with less than five minutes remaining aganist the eventual national champions. That bitter taste should remain with the Duke players throughout this year’s tournament. Unlike last year, they now have only one freshman.

Former Fenwick star Corey Maggette will provide even more athleticism to a team that already has a solid ten-man rotation.

Last year’s choke exposed Duke’s one possible weakness. Unlike the early 90s teams with Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley, the recent Duke squads have had trouble finding a go-to guy in clutch situations. That’s why the key could be sophomore point guard William Avery.

Avery needs to be a great court general and get the ball into the hands of Brand and Langdon. More importantly, Avery has to shoot for a higher 3-point percentage than Steve Wojciechowski did a year ago. If Duke plays up to their talent level, the men from Durham could be celebrating Coach K’s third National Championship.

Another popular Final Four pick is the Stanford Cardinal. This PAC-10 powerhouse is the only team in the country that can rival the Duke’s depth. All five starters are back from a team that reached the Final Four last year. Stanford has every element that is needed to be successful in March.

The Cardinal’s great backcourt is led by prototypical point guard Arthur Lee. Alongside of Lee is 3-point bomber Chris Weems who struggled during last year’s tournament and will be looking for redemption this year.

Upfront, the Cardinal are even more solid. Small forward Peter Sauer, who was injured during last year’s Final Four, provides another outside shooter to help Weems. On the glass, the Cardinal are unmatched.

Seven-foot center Tim Young teams with Mark Madsen to help pound the opponent into submission. Ryan Mendez and former McDonald’s All-Americans the 6’11″ Collins twins provide great depth and size off the bench.

With Stanford playing in possibly the best conference in the country, by the time the tournament rolls around they will be ready. If Duke stumbles at all, look for Stanford to bring the National Title back to Palo Alto.

The last team that looks like an obvious choice to make the Final Four is the Connecticut Huskies. All five starters return on a team that reached the Elite Eight before being eliminated by North Carolina. They are led by All-American swingman Richard Hamilton who is the odds-on favorite to win National Player of the Year.

Another key contributor is spectacular point guard Khalid El-Amin. Last year’s National Freshman of the Year needs to show more maturity; he tended to play out of control at crucial times.

The key to this team hinges on 6’11″ center Jake Voskuhl and senior forward Kevin Freeman. Traditionally, the way to beat the Huskies would be to pound them inside. The strength that these two players display inside will determine how much singing the Huskies will do in March.

The final team that will reach the utopia of St. Petersburg in March will be the Washington Huskies. Is Mark Brunell playing point guard? Coach Bob Bender returns four starters from last year’s Sweet-16squad. They came within a last-second Hamilton fade away of reaching the regional final. Washington has a formula that is always successful during the tournament-one great inside force with two good perimeter scorers. That power, 7’0″ center Todd MacCulloch, who averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds, has led the nation in field-goal percentage the last two years. Outside scorers Deon Lutton and Donald Watts keep the defense honest and keep the triple-team away from MacCulloch.

Look for an exciting run towards the Final Four. With the NBA on hold, college basketball will more than fill the void for hoop fans this year.