March Madness: 15 things to like about the Final Four
Final Four roll call.
North Carolina, playing up to its high bar as favorite.
Oklahoma, driven by an unstoppable star.
Villanova, and the quest for redemption, with a hometown flavor.
As Michael Gbinije said Sunday, after the Orange took a dramatic U-turn against Virginia and into the Final Four, "We had stretches through the season where we couldn’t buy a win.’’
And as Trevor Cooney said, "I did dream this, but it was hard to . . . I don’t know, I’m at a loss for words right now.’’
And as Jim Boeheim said, "Where you’re at is not important, it’s where you get to.’’
Hear, hear, three other coaches said this weekend. The four teams have 31 combined defeats. Last year’s Final Four arrived with 18, and 11 of those belonged to Michigan State. But 31 defeats got them this far.
OK, there are things that won’t be in Houston.
No top-ranked team, now that Kansas has left the building. That means for the 14th time in 15 years, the No. 1 team at the end of the regular season will not be national champion.
Not three of the four No. 1 seeds. They dropped like leaves in October over the weekend, from Oregon to Kansas to Virginia.
Nobody from the two western time zones, for the eighth consecutive season.
No Big Ten team, for the first time in five years.
No John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski or Tom Izzo, for only the second time in nine years.
Nobody from the state of Kentucky, for the first time in six years.
No Bill Self, which means he is now 2-6 in Elite Eights. Oh, if only regional championships could be accumulated like Big 12 titles.
MARCH MADNESS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
JOIN THE TEAM.
1. The heart and soul of all four teams are seniors. It’s positively retro.
2. This is an AARP field of dreams. The average age of the four coaches is 63.25, with Villanova’s Jay Wright the kid – by nine years at 54.
3. In a season of upsets and nobody safe, there’s a chance for North Carolina to transform the narrative at the end, and be the juggernaut that nobody could touch. The numbers are piling up. The Tar Heels’ four NCAA tournament wins have come by 16, 19, 15 and 14 points. Their tournament scoring average is a field-flattening 89.25. And to review, all six season losses came by a total of 22 points. That’s the fewest in their first six defeats for North Carolina since 1941.
4. The Buddy Hield Show. See him score in the paint, from the wing, from the next area code. He’s now been over 30 points 12 times, which is more than the rest of the Big 12 combined, and his 29.3 tournament average is the highest to show up in the Final Four since Michigan’s Glen Rice in 1989.
Look how that turned out, by the way. Rice scored 28 and 31 as the Wolverines won the national championship. With Hield’s performance in LA, some were comparing him to Kobe Bryant. "I’m not Kobe Bryant,’’ he said. We’ll take his word for it.
5. The perfect boy-meets-dream story in Ryan Arcidiacono. He’s a Pennsylvania kid who grew up watching Villanova play. His parents met there as students. His mother lived in the same freshman dorm as the future wife of his coach, Jay Wright. "Him putting on a Villanova jersey is like a kid in Alabama putting on an Alabama football jersey,’’ Wright said. "He just lives it.’’
And now, on his last chance, he has led the Wildcats past their rap sheet as March early-exiters to the Final Four. And while we’re at it this week, we can count how many different ways Arcidiacono’s name is pronounced.
6. Jim Boeheim in Cinderella shoes at the age of 71. Or maybe not. George Mason, Syracuse ain’t. But there is something about the Orange’s road that makes it riveting. There was the awful ACC start and the fade at the finish of the regular season which had them on the NCAA tournament bubble. And then the refusal to lose here, when they trailed Gonzaga by nine points with 6:30 left and Virginia by 15 with 9:32 to go.
"This has been a very interesting year,’’ Cooney said. "We never give up. Never have this whole entire year. We went through a lot of ups and downs and everyone just stayed together, and good things happen when you stay together.’’
7. Barring mishap or chicken pox or something this week, it will be a continuation of what could be the most astounding statistic in college basketball this season; Oklahoma’s Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler and Jordan Woodard starting their 105th consecutive game together. No injuries in three years, no transfers, no NBA detours, no time spent in the coach’s doghouse. Not even strep throat.
"I can’t imagine that ever being done,’’ Kruger said.
8. It’s a reminder that the Final Four and North Carolina go together like Oreos and milk. This will be No. 19. That’s more than Indiana and Louisville – two members of the game’s inner sanctum – have combined.
And while we’re at it, Roy Williams could win his third national championship, which would pass his mentor Dean Smith. The guess is Williams would have mixed feelings about that, but he’ll still cut down his share of the net, anyway.
9. We can take predictions on which minute Syracuse will trot out the press that has saved its collective Orange peels the past two games. Take Sunday. Gbinije related Boeheim’s instructions in the second half, when Syracuse was nearly finished.
"Gamble a little bit. Just try anything,’’ he said. "When you’re down that much you can only go up at that point. We were playing with house money. There was no pressure at that point, we just wanted to go out swinging.’’
10. The last time Lon Kruger coached in the Final Four, there was no Google, Twitter or GPS. That was 1994 with Florida. The 22-year break between Final Fours is the second longest ever, behind Ray Meyer’s 36 years at DePaul.
RELATED: Full NCAA tournament bracket
11. Oklahoma could become first-time champion, and we haven’t had one of those since Florida in 2006.
12. The magic of Villanova in 1985 will be revisited (and won’t Georgetown enjoy that again?)
13. Oklahoma’s Khadeem Lattin will go home to play the Final Four in Houston, and could join his grandfather as a national champion. David Lattin’s title came with extra historical sizzle, not to mention a movie. He was a starter for the 1966 Texas Western team of "Glory Road’’ fame.
14. We can find out if Syracuse’s Tyler Lydon plans to take all his shots this week with both shoes on. After he lost a sneaker late in the first half Sunday, he proceeded to make the first 3-pointer of the game for the Orange in his left sock. Virginia should have suspected strange forces were at play right there.
15. Saturday will give us not one rematch, but two. It’s a long time since Dec. 7, and a long way from Pearl Harbor, so the prediction is Oklahoma vs. Villanova won’t be decided by a 23-point Sooners’ win again. Meanwhile, North Carolina beat Syracuse 84-73 during the Orange’s first swoon and 75-70 during their second.
"Everybody’s journey is tough in its own way,’’ Gbinije said. For all of them, it has been a long trail, but the end is in sight, with a Final Four not exactly seen coming.