For the last 35 years, Marty Blake has been identifying top college and international talent as the NBA’s Director of Scouting. A former general manager of the St. Louis and Atlanta Hawks in the 1950s and ’60s, Marty will be sharing thoughts and observations from the road as he crisscrosses the country identifying top collegiate talent throughout the season leading up to the 2006 NBA Draft in June.

The Final Fours

As we rushed into March Madness there seemed to be an unusual number of complaints by the print and electronic media (and some coaches) regarding the selection of what has been called in recent years, the mid-major schools.

Let me set the record straight. There are few, if any, schools that should be called mid-major schools. If you are good enough to be selected by the NCAA to play Division I basketball, you are entitled to be called a major.

The reasoning why so many of these so-called mid-major schools are getting more bids each year is their level of play – especially in pre-season and postseason events.

I still do not think full-scale parity is upon us – yet.

But let me list my reasons regarding the selection process and why each year, the mid-majors usually pull off some of the most amazing upsets in postseason history.

A – The NCAA tourney games are played on neutral courts – at least in most cases – although Greensboro, N.C, Oakland, Calif, the United Center in Chicago, and certainly Madison Square Garden for NIT games, are not neutral for some teams. But that is knitpicking.

B – Very few mid-major teams lose players to the NBA via the early entry draft. Therefore, teams stay together and develop a cohesiveness that transforms into winning basketball.

C – There is literally a ton of college coaches who work at this level who are among the elite teachers of the game. After all, where do you think Jim Calhoun, Roy Williams, Bo Ryan, Bill Self, etc, came from? Mark Few (Gonzaga – hardly a mid-major school now even though some wrongly list this powerhouse in that frame); Jeff Jones (American University); Jim Larranaga (George Mason); Mark Turgeon (Wichita State); Jim Les (Bradley); Pat Flannery (Bucknell); Dana Altman (Creighton); Perry Watson (Detroit Mercy); Bruiser Flint (Drexell); Murry Bartow (East Tennessee State); Cy Alexander (Tennessee State); Gregg Marshall (Winthrop); Larry Krystkowiak (Montana) and Mike McConathy (Northwestern State University of Louisiana) can coach with anybody.

D – This is not the best-of-five or best-of-seven. This is one and gone.

E – Few Division I centers dot rosters of most of the 332 Division I teams, so the mid-major coaches look for athletic types who can double bigger and smaller people, who can run, jump and defend, and who can accept the idea of team basketball.

Now I am not saying that some day one of these mid-major teams won’t win the NCAA crown. The above are all positive factors.

But as we go further into the fray, these same teams - usually lacking much depth past seven or eight players and maybe missing a piece to the puzzle, i.e. a rebounding four man, a solid point guard who can penetrate, dish and score or a defensive stopper – will face one of the big boys. While playing them tough, they may not have the talent to go all the way, but don’t bet against them.

Hello, George Mason.

This year upsets are the norm rather than the exception.

And George Mason led the pack with victories over Michigan State (75-65), North Carolina (65-60), Wichita State (63-55) and UConn (86-85 in overtime).

It was the first NCAA tourney win for the Patriots and the first time that a Colonial Athletic Association team has made it to the Final Four. Add some stats to the above which shows Mason outscoring these four teams, 72.3 to 66.0; outshooting them from the field .483 to .394 and from 3-range, .419 to .294 and then out rebounding them 36.3 to 34.5.

Keep in mind that George Mason was an at-large selection despite losing twice to Hofstra of the same conference who did not receive a bid. The conference bid went to UNC-Wilmington, the conference tourney winner.

These figures speak well for the CAA.

Incidentally, Old Dominion from the same conference made it to the semifinals of the NIT in New York and easily could have received another bid along with Virginia Commonwealth. Both have been league powers for some time.

This marked the first time since 1979 that an outsider (not from a so-called major conference) reached the Final Four. Indiana State and Pennsylvania made it in 1979.

In one sense, this win will make it doubly difficult for clubs from conferences like the CAA to get the so-called “biggies” to play them at home, even on a home and home basis.

I doubt that Michigan State or North Carolina will be traveling to Fairfax, Va. any time soon.

In the mid 1990s, Dave Anderson, the celebrated columnist of the New York Times, and I combined for a theory – that the team with the most eventual NBA first-rounders would win the NCAA crown.

That idea worked for the first three years, failed the next two, and then went the way of the Titanic.

My latest plan went into effect two years ago.

I felt the team with the biggest front line would win it all. UConn, behind Emeka Okafor, took home the title.

Last year it was North Carolina with Sean May, Marvin Williams and a veteran group that triumphed.

Using this supposedly tried and true method, I immediately sought out UConn again. And you know what happened.

But the idea still stands. At least three of the four teams in the Final Four have big front lines.

The youthful Floridians sports sophomores Joakim Noah (6-11, 228), Al Horford (6-8, 235), Corey Brewer (6-8, 190); junior Chris Richard (6-8, 245) and senior Adrian Moss (6-9, 210).

The Tigers of LSU could counter with sophomore Glen (Just call me Big Baby) Davis (6-9, 310); junior Darnell Lazare (6-9, 228) and freshmen Tyrus Thomas (6-7, 210, a red shirt last year), Tasmin Mitchell (6-7, 235) and Magnum Rolle (6-10, 210).

UCLA has the revitalized senior Ryan Hollins (7-0, 225) – the star of their four victories – and another senior, Michael Fey (7-0, 270); sophomore Lorenzo Mata (6-8, 235) and freshman Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (6-7, 215).

George Mason may be the underdog but there still is a lot of fight in that dog.

I remember past Final Fours with unbridled excitement, especially one in St. Louis in 1978 when Arkansas lost to Kentucky in the semi-final and then beat Notre Dame (who had lost to Duke) in the consolation game.

Arriving in the company of Washington Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry, sans tickets, I was met at the airport by a friend of Ferry, Bob Baskovitz, who owned a huge bus tabbed the Red Baron. It seems Baskovitz’s company made most of the bottles for Anheuser-Busch and had in his possession a number of seats for the opening double-header.

He invited Ferry, Rick Sund, then a scout for Milwaukee and now the GM of the Seattle Sonics, and me to join him and a large contingent of athletes from other sports – baseball, football, etc – for dinner and the games. The bus easily could accommodate this crowd.

He also had tickets for those who needed them. Mine turned out to be in the middle of the Arkansas delegation. Someone stuck a pig hat atop my head and made me learn the Razorback chant. I yelled, “Gooo Piggy,” or something like that, throughout the game.

When I got back to Atlanta some of my friends greeted me with that yell, having seen some of the contest on TV.

Baskovitz entertained 30-odd people at the now closed Beyo Mill, then one of the top restaurants in St. Louis and, following the games, took them on a tour of the city and various local watering holes.

I got a lot of stares with my Razorback hat, which I wish I had kept.

The previous year the Finals were held at the Omni in Atlanta and Al McGuire and his Marquette Warriors won, 67-59, over North Carolina.

McGuire had announced his retirement prior to this tournament which may have given his team additional incentive to win. A year later, he wound up calling the game on national television.

I had met Al many years before through his brother, Dick, an NBA icon.

I called to say hello when he arrived in Atlanta and he asked if my family wanted to go to the games. I was shocked at the offer but McGuire produced five tickets for us – my wife, Marcia, daughter Sarah, and sons, Eliot and Ryan.

It was the start of a great friendship built, in a sense, around future Final Fours.

Al had several speaking engagements and personal appearances each year at the Final Four and I would, on several occasions, join him as the front man of a dog and pony show, telling a few sports stories and then introducing McGuire.

As a 43-year-long-time associate member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC), I became involved with the coaches all-star usually held the Friday night before the opening game or on Sunday afternoon between games.

As the years rolled by, it became difficult to get 24 players to appear in this game. But I approached Manny Jackson, the Harlem Globetrotters mogul, about the Trotters possibly playing the All-Stars as part of the Final Four celebration.

He was agreeable and this event had traditionally drawn sell-out crowds.

And these games have featured many of the future stars of the NBA.

My wife and I attended the Final Four games during the '70s and '80s but with the switch to dome-like buildings, it seems our seats are so far away that we decided it is best to stay at home and watch it on television.

And this year’s Finals could be the most exciting in a long, long time.