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Monday, March 20, 2006 - Page updated at 04:41 PM

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Bud Withers

UW, Zags emerge unscathed

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Go ahead. Raise your hand if you called a Sweet 16 matchup of George Mason and Wichita State. By all means, make yourself known if you saw Bradley breaking through to the second weekend.

The giant, splendid non sequitur known as the first weekend of the NCAA men's basketball tournament has passed, leaving behind it a trail of broken dreams, upstart teams and, as usual, shattered brackets.

When's the last time the top-rated conference in the Ratings Percentage Index computer didn't advance a team to the Sweet 16? That's what happened to the (formerly) Big Ten, which — among Iowa, Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin — couldn't get out of the second round.

That was ignominy enough, but the league salted its wounds further by the way it happened. Four of them bowed out with double-digit losses — and then there was Iowa's defeat to No. 14 seed Northwestern State.

But this might be the upset of the opening weekend: Guess the only state with two teams still playing? You've got it. We in Washington are now identifiable by other than 5-inch garden slugs and Tim Eyman.

Kansas has a team, of course — Wichita State. Illinois does, too — Bradley. So does Virginia — George Mason.

It's not a great surprise, given their fitful histories, that this is the first time Washington and Gonzaga have simultaneously reached the Sweet 16. It's never happened by any pair in the state, unless you want to count 1953, when Seattle University met Washington in the round of 16. Back then, it was a 28-team tournament, the Huskies had a bye, and Seattle U. had only to win once to reach that game.

Saturday, the Huskies eliminated Illinois, and the Zags finished Indiana. The striking numbers against the vanquished Big Ten duo were that Washington and Gonzaga combined to shoot 80 free throws, compared to 17 by the midgets of the midway. The Huskies and Zags had a 60-11 edge in points at the line.

That sent Bruce Weber, the Illinois coach, into a pointed rant about officiating. Mike Davis, now out at Indiana, had no room to beef, because the Zags were attacking the basket and his team was launching a season-high 36 threes.

For the Huskies, it's testimony to how far a team can come defensively since November, especially with Bobby Jones and Brandon Roy patrolling the perimeter against smaller backcourts.

"It wasn't just our goal to make it to the tournament," said Roy. "We wanted to make a special run in the tournament."

Meanwhile, in Salt Lake City, Gonzaga coach Mark Few paused to reflect on 29 victories in 32 games.

"We might not blow anybody out," he said, "but there's something to be said for just winning games. If they [his players] could have only one quality, the quality to be able to win is not a bad one."

Especially when chaos is ruling the tournament. In the first round, there were six upsets by seeds 11 and lower, equaling the most in five years. Moreover, when a purebred wasn't going down, that team was usually sweating bullets.

Three games between the Nos. 2 and 15 seeds were decided by single digits, which is unprecedented. No. 14 seed Xavier, No. 15 Winthrop, No. 11 San Diego State and No. 14 Murray State were taken out by a combined 10 points, and Pacific had a six-point overtime lead on title contender Boston College. Had a few of those come in, your bracket today would have been as dysfunctional as Enron's books.

When has the first weekend been so contentious? Never, probably. The early migration of big players to the NBA has augured an era of small ball. Anybody, including the mid-majors, can recruit a backcourt. As Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim asked rhetorically a couple of months ago, "Where's a big guy? For every big guy, there's 10 guards."

The weekend seemed to say that the basketball committee acquitted itself well with its at-large selections — particularly with George Mason and four Missouri Valley teams — but proved to be reaching with some of its seeds. Tennessee was a bogus No. 2, Nevada was flattered with a No. 5, and Xavier was shockingly low at 14, penalized for a losing stretch when retooling after its leading scorer was injured.

This is the week when form usually begins prevailing, when jitters settle out and form holds. As for the Huskies and Zags, they'd just as soon be a distinction a little longer.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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