How quickly, and hard, they fall in March. One moment, the bracket is full of hope and promise. The next, there are but eight teams still standing, knocking at the glittering Final Four door.
Three are from the Big Ten. Two are No. 1 seeds. There is also Kentucky, owner of the Bluegrass State, after an epic showdown Friday night in which Louisville led nearly every minute, but not the last one. A Cinderella in Dayton. A revival in Connecticut.
Friday was a frantic exercise in NCAA tournament survival, from Lucas Oil Stadium to Madison Square Garden. It was one of those nights that makes the month.It was Kentucky’s John Calipari, looking back on all the big plays his young team has had to make in back-to-back classics against Wichita State and Louisville, and observing, “They’re maturing right before our eyes.”
It was Louisville’s Rick Pitino, mourning an excruciating 74-69 loss that finished the careers of Russ Smith and Luke Hancock, saying, “It’s the end of an era for us.”
It was Nik Stauskas, mentioning with relief, after Michigan nearly wavered at the end against Tennessee, “Time couldn’t run out fast enough for us.”
And over in the other locker room, it was Tennessee’s Jeronne Maymon who spoke for all the broken-hearted of the night, “Damn, we almost had it.”
It was Michigan State out-gritting and out-defensing the notably gritty and defensive Virginia, and Connecticut refusing to budge against Iowa State. This after last year’s academic sanctions left the Huskies program barred from the postseason, out in the cold. “If you don’t give up in the dark times,” head coach Kevin Ollie said Friday night, “it will reverse.”
So what happens now? Eight ifs for the Elite Eight.
• If Arizona beats Wisconsin ... it’d be Sean Miller beating the school that gave him his first assistant’s job. He still remembers that Wisconsin winter and his first look at ice fishing. It’s a little different in Tucson. It’d be the first Wildcat team in the Final Four with a coach not named Lute Olson.
• If Wisconsin beats Arizona ... it’d electrify a program that has been a regular player in the Big Ten race, but has advanced to the Final Four only once in the past 72 years. It would send Bo Ryan to his first Final Four in his 927th game as a head coach. And it would mean the Badgers beat three No. 1 seeds this season -- Arizona, Florida and Virginia -- and seven conference champions.
• If Dayton beats Florida ... the Flyers would be the third No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four in nine years, joining George Mason of 2006 and VCU of '11. They, too, had to upset No. 1 seeds in the regional championship. It would put a team in the Final Four that did not receive one vote in the latest Associated Press or USA Today coaches’ polls, and lost three times this season to Saint Joseph’s. It’d make Archie Miller a Final Four coach at the age of 35, or 10 years younger than brother Sean.
• If Florida beats Dayton ... Billy Donovan will be coaching in his fourth Final Four in 15 years. This at a school that had been to one in the previous 61 seasons. It’d make Florida only the second No. 1 team in six years to survive the second week. If Connecticut also wins, it would put the Gators against the last team to beat them.
• If Connecticut beats Michigan State ... it would confirm there is life after Jim Calhoun. It would blow out Kemba Walker’s cell phone mail, with reporters calling to ask him to compare his extraordinary journey in 2011 with Shabazz Napier. It would be the first time in 30 years -- Virginia in 1984 -- that a No. 7 seed appeared in the Final Four. It would put the Huskies in the Final Four 21 days after they lost by 33 points to Louisville.
• If Michigan State beats Connecticut ... it would be right on schedule, Tom Izzo-wise. He had not been back to the Final Four in three years. He has never gone as long as four. And it would further prove what everyone suspected all along; that once the Spartans were healthy, they would be difficult to stop.
• If Michigan beats Kentucky ... it would send the Wolverines back to doorstep of a national championship, which they came so close to winning this past April. It would be a remarkable sequel to 2013 after losing two vital seniors and Mitch McGary to injury. And it would prove the Wolverines can trade muscle with the big guys, a charge they are sensitive about. “I guess people forgot we play in the Big Ten and we won the Big Ten outright,” Jordan Morgan said Friday.
• If Kentucky beats Michigan ... Calipari would be back in the Final Four with another cast of prized freshmen, to have his one-and-done ways on center stage again. Maybe it took them longer this season. “We almost ran out of runway,” Calipari said Saturday. “We grew up. We have 18- and 19-year-olds that were counted out and ridiculed and crushed.”
But one decisive, game-saving play Friday night was an example of how far the Wildcats have come.
With Louisville ahead 68-67 in the final minute, Julius Randle had the ball in heavy traffic in the paint. There was a time not long ago, he would have tried to manufacture some theatrics, being the most hyped of them all. “Three weeks ago,” Calipari said,” he would have shot a hook.”
Not anymore. “They have finally surrendered and lost themselves in the team,” Calipari said. Randle found an open Aaron Harrison in the left corner. Three-pointer.
The night was theirs. And the state. And maybe, soon, a lot more. If they beat Michigan, they will be the rarest of Final Four teams, with five freshmen starters. The other team to do it (as irony nods)? Michigan, and it’s Fab Five.
“They’re going to be very tough to beat,” Pitino said. “Very tough to beat.”
By now, aren’t they all?