04/06/2005 12:00AM

No forgetting what might have been


PHILADELPHIA - With confetti raining down on my head and covering my laptop to the point where, with a few minutes to deadline, I could not see what I was writing, my thoughts began to turn to horse racing. And Smarty Jones.

With North Carolina celebrating on the court at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, my eyes turned to the Illinois players walking sadly to their locker room. How could you not empathize with them?

Illinois had been the best college basketball team all season. The team became so huge in its home state that, when the team left by bus for the 185-mile ride to St. Louis a few days before the Final Four, hundreds of fans stood on overpasses to send the players on their way. It reminded me so much of the scene when Smarty Jones left Philadelphia Park last June bound for Belmont Park and what seemed certain immortality.

The problem is that this can't be scripted. Endings, happy or otherwise, are just that: endings. The longer you are around, you find out what you know. And what you don't know.

Like practically everybody else, I knew Smarty Jones was going to win the Triple Crown. Eventually, I found out what I did not know.

I loved Illinois from the first time I saw it this season. I had the good fortune to see the Fighting Illini play live on their home court and once when they were on the road. I talked to their coach, Bruce Weber, for a story. I watched every game I could on television. I knew them. I knew they were going to win the championship.

What I forgot was that there were other good teams out there, that North Carolina, player for player, was even more talented than Illinois. Still, that did not concern me. There was just something about Illinois. The team had the indefinable "it" just like Smarty had "it."

We all spend time each March comparing the NCAA tournament to the road to the Triple Crown. And there are some valid comparisons. The better comparison is probably to the Triple Crown itself. Lose one game (or one race) and you are out. Yes, you can come back to win one of the other races, but you are out of Triple Crown consideration.

Imagine how it must feel to win every time, get right to the last possible moment and lose at the finish. Illinois was tied in the final minutes. If it makes one more basket at the right moment, it probably wins the championship. And gets mentioned as one of the greatest college basketball teams in history.

Illinois and Smarty Jones had so much in common. Everything was perfect, except the endings.

I knew when I walked out of the Dome that night that basketball was going to be behind me for a while. I knew horse racing was dead ahead, with a trip to Arkansas coming next week. That must have accounted for my brain function as I was trying to put the finish on a column about Roy Williams finally winning the championship he was always going to win, eventually. I just could not stop thinking about Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland, and New York, even as I was trying to make sense of what I had just seen.

In a game like that, you have two stories working, depending on who wins. I had an Illinois story going too, trying to give historical perspective to its season. If Illinois had won Monday, it would have been an Ohio State shot in the final seconds from being 39-0. It really would have been like Smarty Jones winning the Triple Crown while still unbeaten, the kind of stuff you see just once in a generation.

As North Carolina's Sean May was announced as the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, my mind took me back to 1976 when his dad led Indiana to the title. Those Hoosiers were the last unbeaten national champion. The very next year, Seattle Slew became the only unbeaten horse to win the Triple Crown.

Hoops. Horses. 1976. 1977. 2004. 2005.

One of Illinois's senior players, Luther Head, sat on the North Carolina bench for a few minutes to watch the celebration. It was really hard to watch him and not think of John Servis after the Belmont Stakes, walking back through the tunnel to the backstretch, knowing, like Head knew, how close he had come to something seemingly so unreachable.

When I finally caught myself and finished writing, I thought about the competition. Which is what we all really love anyway. If you are there, in the last game, in the last race, you have a feeling that never really goes away. Even without the confetti, you were there, right there in a place where precious few ever tread.

With that, it was time to consider the Santa Anita Derby (can a filly go to Kentucky as one of the favorites?), the Wood Memorial, the Arkansas Derby, the Blue Grass, Sweet Catomine, Rockport Harbor, Afleet Alex. It was time to consider the Triple Crown. And the possibilities.