Maryland, Indiana, Oklahoma and Kansas all maneuvered their ways around the bracket racket that is the NCAA Tournament to get to the Georgia Dome for the 2002 Final Four. Just five seasons later, college basketball's grand finale has returned to the city too busy to use H.O.V. lanes. It wouldn't surprise anyone if Kansas, with its terrific trio of Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush and Julian Wright, directs its way back to Atlanta. '02 champ Maryland and the runner-up Hoosiers -As fate would have it, current Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson was Oklahoma's coach back in '02- are also dancing, but no one's expecting either to have all that much gas. As for this year's directionless Sooners, they didn't get an NCAA or NIT bid. And that's probably for the best, because 18-wheelers named Florida, Ohio State and UNC are destined to flatten road-kill this postseason. Here are a few other things we've been pondering lately while sitting in brutal afternoon traffic around the city…
Cruising Towards Atlanta- Only a bracket scheduling quirk (or complete mental breakdown) will keep these teams from meeting up in the Peach State.
Florida- The defending champs won't have an easy road to becoming repeat champs (Arizona won't be an easy win in the second round), but with the emotive Joakim Noah and explosive Corey Brewer behind the wheel, we think the Gators will cruise to the Final Four.
Ohio State- The Buckeyes are the Demi Moore/Ashton Kutcher of college basketball—the perfect blend of experience (junior Jamar Butler) and youthful exuberance (Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr.). And it only helps matters that OSU has the easiest road to the Final Four of all the No. 1 seeds.
North Carolina- Talent-wise, the Tar Heels are No. 1 on any list. Brandan Wright is the truth. Ty Lawson is a blur. Tyler Hansbrough is in the NBA next year. Sadly, UNC is two and out (Texas and Georgetown, of course, will be problems) if it shows the same indifference it sometimes did during the regular season.
Top Attractions- Ride shotgun with any of these sensational players and you might get to the Sweet 16.
Aaron Gray, Pittsburgh- The Panthers are a good team without Gray (an ankle injury has limited play of late). With the 7-0 fort posted under the goal, they're a serious problem to any school without a consistent outside game.
Kevin Durant, Texas- The Sports Illustrated cover boy deserves all the hype he's getting and more. Simply put, he's the most exciting player not on an NBA roster. Enjoy the Garnett-on-training-wheels in March, because he's likely on to the League in April.
Roy Hibbert, Georgetown- While the Hoya center isn't one much for lighting up the scoreboard (just five games over 20 points), he's definitely the reason Georgetown is rejecting thoughts (11 games with three blocks or more) of an early NCAA exit at the hands of Boston College.
Acie Law IV, Texas A&M- Were it not for Mr. Durant playing in the same conference, there would be no doubt this amazing Aggie would be Big 12 player of the year. No biggie for Acie. Final Four MVP has a better ring to it anyway.
Shortcut to Nowhere- Their names are familiar, but don't be fooled by all the hype and neon lights.
Duke- No, it's not the wisest thing to count out a Coach K-led team under any circumstances. And yes, Josh McRoberts and DeMarcus Nelson are talented enough to put up 20 on any given night. Still, there's just too much gray area with these erratic Blue Devils.
Indiana- Besides Florida's Noah, Hoosier D.J. White might be the most expressive big man in the land. With that said, you do not want to be around the 250-pound junior in those first few moments after a loss in the tournament.
Memphis- It's teams like the Tigers that break an office poll bracket. During most of the regular season they're amazing (25 wins at the end of Feb), but come the Big Dance they stumble over their own feet because they realize that most of their impressive victories came against inferior teams. Nevada might surprise'em early on.
Creighton- Alas, the old "Cinderella” pick. Maybe the Jays are this year's feel-good, George Mason story. King skipped ahead a few pages and we can tell you that Creighton star Nate Funk's collegiate chapter ends long before midnight.
Little-known Detours- Don't be shocked if one or two of these under-the-radar squads ends up in the Elite Eight.
Southern Illinois- The school's mascot is the saluki, a canine held in the highest esteem by the Ancient Egyptians. The school's best player is Jamaal Tatum, a fiery guard the Missouri Valley Conference couldn't keep a hold of. This mid-major is a major threat.
Washington State- Sure, they're ranked but can you name the Cougars' leading scorer? No, well how about the team's head coach? Get ready to put the kinetic Derrick Low and rookie coach Tony Bennett on your tongue because State is primed to make a name for itself in ‘07.
Winthrop- Another middie that can play with the biggies, the Eagles beat Mississippi State, Old Dominion and lost by just three to Wisconsin. Don't expect to see streaky Big South Conference reps in the A, but expect to see their names more than once in the bracket.
Georgia Tech- One of the more up and down teams, the Jackets know they can play with the best of them. But wins against Duke, Memphis and UConn aside, the Javaris Crittenton-sparked squad has got to show more heart. And they will—even against the highly-favorite Badgers.