Notebook > Sports

In like a lion, out like a lamb

Sports | Florida's convincing win over UCLA in the title game was an unfitting end to another unpredictable tournament

Issue: "Illegal passage," April 15, 2006

Perhaps never in the history of the NCAA men's basketball tournament was March Madness more unpredictable, more delightful, more maddening. From nine first-round upsets to four Sweet 16 Cinderellas to a Final Four void of top seeds, the tournament dizzied professional projectionists and frustrated office pools nationwide. Flip-a-coin brackets from 8-year-old girls harbored as much credibility as those from seasoned sports fans.

Whittling down a field of 65 to a single champion in less than three weeks is bound to prove wildly entertaining. Indeed, unlike every other mainstream athletic event, the tournament never disappoints. But exceptional as this year's iteration was, the final game stunk.

Florida's 73-57 thumping of UCLA on April 3 featured no gripping late-game theater, no comeback display of competitive zeal. The Gators built an 11-point first-half lead that never dipped back into single digits. The game's final 20 minutes evaporated quietly like an underwhelming wisp of steam, leaving Jack Bauer of Fox's 24 to fuel the night's hottest display of television drama.

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Such a forgettable conclusion hardly seems fitting for so memorable a playoff. But no matter the lacking merits of the final contest, six rounds of erratic results could not have sifted a more appropriate champion. Florida typifies the tournament's defining underdog spirit-the same spirit that pushed 13th-seeded Bradley to victories over heavily favored Kansas and Pittsburgh and pulled 11th-seeded George Mason past top-ranked Connecticut for a Final Four berth.

The Gators entered the season last fall ranked 75th in the nation and fifth in the East division of the Southeastern Conference. Prognosticators dubbed 2006 a building year for a team with four sophomore starters. Florida built plenty. A 17-game win streak to open the season helped alter perceptions before six subsequent losses in the next 11 games resurrected doubts. The 11 straight victories since have cemented a nation of Gator believers. "You work so hard for these moments, and they're so worth it," tournament MVP Joakim Noah told reporters after the game. "Not only does it feel good. It smells good. It tastes good."

Mr. Noah set an NCAA championship record with six blocked shots and piled up 16 points and nine rebounds. For the second consecutive year, the 6-foot-11 post concluded his postseason performance with tears. His bitter weeping of a year ago followed a premature second-round Florida exit in which he scored no points in two minutes of play. This season's improbable individual turnaround helped spark a dud of a finale to a whale of a tournament.

Opening daze

The most optimistic day in sports-when baseball fans even in Kansas City and Detroit can glory in first place-opened April 3 under dark clouds of scandal. With San Francisco's Barry Bonds set to eclipse Babe Ruth in the coming weeks for second place on the all-time home run list, baseball commissioner Bud Selig has launched an investigation into the slugger's well-documented steroid use. Many fans and sports commentators accuse Mr. Selig of delaying the official inquiry far too long-of ignoring rampant steroid allegations in hopes the story might blow over and only responding in the wake of an especially damning book on the matter from two prominent San Francisco journalists.

But Mr. Bonds, who maintains his innocence, has suggested the continued scrutiny is racially motivated, the result of harbored fears that a black man might surpass the feat of Babe Ruth. No word from Mr. Bonds on whether racial bias might also seek to block his ascent toward the all-time home run record of Henry Aaron-a black man who bested the Babe more than 30 years ago.

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