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 Four and PIT – Revisited”

College basketball takes a step back after the NCAA championships and turns its attention to the long-awaited early entry race.

As we noted earlier – make that predicted two columns ago – the team with the biggest array of big people, Florida, claimed the championship.

The men of Billy Donovan raced along a fairly easy passage to the title game beating South Florida (76-50) in the first round, Wisconsin-Milwaukee (82-60) in the second round and Villanova, 75-62, in the round of eight.

Georgetown, which was edged by the Gators 57-53 in the round of 16, provided the most competition.

Fan favorite George Mason, the Cinderella story of this year’s Final Four, gave the eventual winners a battle before fading in the second half.

And the Gators also had no problem with UCLA, defeating them, 73-57.

Sometimes statistics do not tell a true tale.

UCLA, who made it back to the Final Four for the first time in many years, actually outrebounded the winners, 40-35. The Bruins had 14 offensive boards to nine for the Gators. But that was the only stat that favored the losers.

Check these figures out:

A – Florida had 21 assists; UCLA had 11.
B – Florida had only six turnovers; UCLA had 12.
C – Florida had 10 blocks (see big men above) and UCLA had only one.
D – Florida had seven steals; UCLA had three.
E – Florida shot .448 from the field while UCLA shot .361
F – Florida converted 15-of-20 free throws (.750) while UCLA made 10-14 (.714)
G – Florida made 6-of-19 three-point attempts (.316); UCLA hit only 3-of-17 from long distance (.176)

Note that Florida guard Lee Humphrey hit 4-of-8 from 3-point range while the rest of his team shot 2-for-11, with his running mate, Taurean Green, missing all of his seven attempts. UCLA’s Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo combined for three made field goals in 15 tries, while the freshman, Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, missed his only two attempts.

Stats do tell the story – most times.

But the Patriots of George Mason, seeded 11th, were the tourney’s big story.

George Mason became only the second double-digit seeding to make the Final Four. The first was Louisiana State, seeded 11th in 1986.

The Patriots were awarded an at-large invite which infuriated many of the nation’s scribes and electronic media.

UNC-Wilmington won the conference tourney – not a surprise win since this team showed in the past it could play well against most any high level Division I team.

The uproar centered around the failure of Hofstra to earn a bid since that club had beaten George Mason twice this season.

George Mason’s at-large invite gave the Colonial Athletic Association two tourney teams for the second time. In 1986, Navy and Richmond were selected.

Coached by veteran Jim Larranaga, who has been around forever, they upset Michigan State 75-65 in the first round; North Carolina, 65-60, in the second round; Wichita State, 63-55, in the round of 16 and Connecticut in overtime, 86-84, in the round of eight.

Their team play was heroic and I felt that the final score did not tell the true story.

In the final five or six minutes, they had enough inside the paint shots that barely missed which may not have changed the final outcome but easily could have cut the margin of victory to the low single digits.

An interesting side bar shows that only George Mason, which loses seniors Jai Lewis, Tony Skinn and Lamar Butler, faces severe rebuilding.

The backbone of the other three teams is built around sophomores and juniors.

Don’t worry about George Mason. Larranaga has been down this road before and he will reassemble this team as he has many times in the past.

The 54th Portsmouth Virginia Invitational Tournament was certainly one of the best ever.

Attendance was way up and while some players pulled out for one reason or another, the games were a battle from start to finish.

A lot of players earned NBA opportunities off their play here.

This was a tourney of great shooting, great team play, great playmaking and a display of all-around brilliance by a number of little men you will hear about in the coming years.

The Portsmouth Sports Club won the title for the second straight year, beating Holiday Inn, 104-88, in a shootout that saw the winners shoot .629 from the field (39-62).

They were guided by 5-foot-10 Keydren Clark of St. Peter’s, who led Division I in scoring in two of the last three years.

He led the tourney in scoring (19.3 ppg) and his brilliant floor generalship earned the Most Valuable Player trophy.

Other members of the winners were Solomon Jones (South Florida), Terrell Everett (Oklahoma), Curtis Withers (Charlotte), Daniel Kickert (St. Mary’s in California), Jeff Horner (Iowa), and Christian Maraker (Pacific).

Jones was ninth in scoring (14.0 ppg), third in field goal percentage (.636), third in rebounds (9.7 rpg), eighth in free throw percentage (.889) and seventh in blocks (2.0 bpg).

The overall shooting in this tourney was amazing.

Seventeen players averaged over .500 from the field, topped by Chris Hernandez (15-20, .750).

Yemi Nicholson (Denver) led the rebounders with 11.5 rpg, while Eric Hicks (Cincinnati) had an 11.0 rpg mark.

Hicks’ team lost out in a consolation round on Friday afternoon, the third day of the four-day affair. Instead of returning home he decided to stay over and asked that he be considered as a replacement if anyone became sidelined.

Ken Adeleke (Hartford) was injured that night and had to be replaced, opening up a spot for Hicks.

Eric responded with a 27-point, 17-rebound effort, hitting 13-of-17 field goal attempts. He had nine of his 17 rebounds off the offensive glass.

That earned him a spot on the all-tourney team, which included Jones, Hernandez, Kickert, CJ Watson (Tennessee), Steve Novak (Marquette), Carl Krauser (Pittsburgh), Akin Akingbala (Clemson), Greg Brunner (Iowa), Nick George (Virginia Commonwealth) and Jose Juan Barea (Northeastern).

Barea set all-time tourney records with 18 assists in one game and 41 for the event.

His performance not only earned him a place on the all-tourney team, but he was awarded the first Allen Iverson AI Most Inspirational Award.

He averaged 14.0 ppg, led all players with 13.67 apg and was tops in assist-to-turnover ratio (8.2).

Hernandez also set a new mark, hitting all of his eight three-point field goal attempts.

All told, 32 of the 64 players scored in double figures, while Nicholson and Hicks had double-doubles (ppg and rpg) and Berea had a double-double with points (14.0 ppg) and assists (13.7 apg).

It will be interesting to watch these young men move up the ladder to the NBA. There was a lot of talent in this edition of the PIT.

I hope the 55th tourney will be just as good.