The U.S. men's college basketball national championship tournament has surprises each year. But this year's competition has been especially exciting and unpredictable. All four regional top seeds have been eliminated, and an unlikely 11th seed has reached the Final Four teams with a legitimate shot at a national title on April 3 in Indianapolis.
Each team that has reached this year's so-called Final Four has taken a very different path to the end of the single-elimination tournament, which began with 65 teams. Unheralded George Mason University, located just outside the nation's capital, has made the most surprising run. With no wins in previous tournament appearances, the team from the northern Virginia school knocked off the past two national champions and another team that was in the Final Four last year.
George Mason coach Jim Larranaga says his team took a simple approach.
"We never saw ourselves as a number one seed, or number 11 seed, or a 16th seed," he said. "That number was truly irrelevant. Once you get on the court it is about performance and execution. It is about keeping things simple and not trying to do things beyond our own capabilities."
George Mason will have to upset a strong Florida team on Saturday if it is to reach the championship game Monday night. Despite playing with a young team this season, Florida started winning immediately with 17 consecutive victories. The experience of sophomores in starring roles added confidence to talent. Florida enters Saturday's semifinal game in Indianapolis with nine straight wins in March, with seven of the wins in postseason games.
Youth and size have been the hallmark of Louisiana State University's team, which eliminated the overall top seed Duke. LSU coach John Brady says his team quickly grew up.
"Sometime along the way in this season, the youngness of our team had gotten lost in the winning," he said. "But we started the year with three freshman on the floor and a sophomore and only one senior on the team in Darrell Mitchell. We come off the bench with two freshman and a junior. So for us to be where we are at this particular time is certainly a little surprising to me."
LSU, which has inspired local fans after the devastation to their state from Hurricane Katrina, will play the University of California at Los Angeles. UCLA has a storied college basketball history and holds a record 11 national championship titles. UCLA brushed aside a few major and several minor injuries this season to win its first (Pac-10) conference regular-season championship since 1997. The UCLA team is large and physical, and coach Ben Howland is hoping their rough-and-tumble style of play will earn the school's first national championship since 1995.