CLEVELAND -- Did Notre Dame just give three teams hope -- and maybe a game plan?
The road to Indianapolis has a tad different feel now. Kentucky had grown to be considered impregnable, invulnerable, untouchable – at least by the outside world. And then the Wildcats played Notre Dame. Suddenly, they were not an 18-wheeler thundering downhill over mere speed bumps anymore. They were surviving and advancing, like mortal teams must.
So perhaps it will truly be a tense Final Four this weekend in Lucas Oil Stadium, and not just a coronation. It’d be fitting, for this quartet has a lot of sizzle.
There are three No. 1 seeds -- Kentucky, Duke and Wisconsin -- the most at a Final Four in seven years. There is also Michigan State as a No. 7 seed; another late-bloomer from the laboratory of Tom Izzo. That’s the same spot Connecticut carried last year, by the way, and look how that turned out.There is enough coaching expertise to fill up the largest marquee. The field includes Nos. 1 (Mike Krzyzewski 86-26), 2 (John Calipari 38-12) and 5 (Izzo 46-16) in NCAA tournament winning percentage among active coaches. Bo Ryan’s pretty good, too. Together, the four men can claim 27 Final Fours. Krzyzewski has 12 alone, to join John Wooden.
And hanging in the air, like the aroma from a nearby bakery, is the possibility of the Nieslen ratings dream date so many have talked about since it all began in November. Kentucky vs. Duke for the national championship. Even the basketball gods would pause for that.
But first, the Big Ten – namely steely veteran Wisconsin and iron-minded Michigan State – has to get out of the way.
The Badgers, paired with Kentucky for the second consecutive year, surely must have noticed how Notre Dame spread out the Wildcats defense, and then tormented them with backdoor cuts, crashing the boards, and showing the world Kentucky can be driven against, if an opponent is talented enough – and more importantly, fearless enough.
Yes, the team with the 38-0 record can be pushed, cornered, endangered. But then, it is yet to be proven the Wildcats can be beaten. The record will still show that when push came to shove in the Midwest Regional, Kentucky went the last 12 minutes without missing a shot, making its last nine in a row when it needed every one of them.
So from the Wildcats camp came a mixture of messages after the 68-66 escape.
From Calipari, perspective. "We know we're not perfect. We're undefeated, but we're not perfect. I mean, we showed that tonight."
From Marcus Lee, a warning. "We can’t have the game we just had. We have to fix it."
From Andrew Harrison, who contributed the game-winning free throws with six seconds left, a straight-forward account of why the Wildcats played the defense they did in the final minutes: "Desperation, probably. We had no choice or we were going to lose."
But also from Harrison, undamaged confidence. Was he ever worried -- in those 21 scary moments Notre Dame led by as many as six points -- that Kentucky might actually ... lose?
"Of course not."
Then there was wise old Willie Cauley-Stein, the Yoda of the Wildcats, nodding toward his cell phone.
"I’ve got dudes texting me from way back home, saying, 'You shouldn’t have won that game. I’m glad you won it, but y’all shouldn’t have won it.'"
"I’m just saying like, 'You’re right. The way they played, and the way we played defensively, we shouldn’t have won the game.'"
Down the hallway in the quiet Notre Dame locker room, Cauley-Stein would have gotten no argument. The Irish know better than anyone how close this call had been.
Jerian Grant: "Thirty-nine out of 40 minutes, we feel like we really controlled the game. It’s hard, being so close, a shot away, a stop away, from doing something so special."
Mike Brey: "I don’t think it would have been an upset. We never believed that within our little group, and that’s probably why we had a chance."
Pat Connaughton: "A bounce here, a bounce there ... if the universe turns a different direction, maybe we win. But you’ve got to give them credit. They made the winning plays when the winning plays were needed."Brey mentioned something else.
"Wisconsin's a little bit like us. They're skilled and they can spread people out a little bit. They have a little more bulk and frontline size, but they're really skilled offensive guys, and certainly we were able to get some things tonight. But the size does get to you. Over 40 minutes it can take its toll on you."
And so a rematch beckons in Indianapolis. It took an Aaron Harrison 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds left to beat the Badgers 74-73 last year in the Final Four; the type of unhappy ending that can stick with a team for 12 months.
Wisconsin is back with familiar weapons. Frank Kaminsky averaging 22.8 points in the NCAA tournament. Sam Dekker, shooting 60.4 percent in the tournament and putting the 3-point daggers in Arizona. Guard Josh Gasser, who has one turnover in 145 tournament minutes. With a poise that shows at crunch time. In the seven games of the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, Wisconsin is shooting 64.3 percent in the last five minutes, including 10 of 14 in 3-pointers.
Wisconsin’s second chance with its accomplished, efficient veterans will be a theme for Indianapolis.
So will Duke’s freshmen, Jahlil Okafor getting the player-of-the-year raves, but Justise Winslow doing the heavy lifting so far in the tournament. Tyus Jones, too. If Krzyzewski is to get title No. 5, Duke must do what Kentucky is supposed to do -- win with talented teenagers. The young Blue Devils committed but three turnovers Sunday against Gonzaga.
Another theme will be Izzo, back in the Final Four a seventh time, an acclaimed master at toughening a team for March. It does not matter the Spartans are owners of 11 losses, one to Texas Southern. They have held their four NCAA tournament opponents to 33.9 percent shooting, and become expert at games on the brink.
The 76-70 overtime win against Louisville was their 12th game in a row decided by single digits, nine of them wins. Their last double-digit game was Feb. 17.
And in one of the more remarkable statistics of March, Izzo is now 21-4 on the second game of the weekend in NCAA tournaments. He does know how to prepare a team for two games.
But still, the main plot is Big Blue, how it has gotten here, and what it can do. Pushed or not by Notre Dame, Kentucky is still a wondrous creation of bodies and defense and depth and acceptance of roles.
The Wildcats are on the brink of an historical season, and it is still amazing that their leading scorer, Aaron Harrison, averages only 11 points a game. As of Sunday, he was 632nd in the nation in scoring.
And it is still astonishing how Calipari has gotten all of these future NBA draft picks to accept reduced minutes, reduced exposure, reduced chances to be The Man they all think they are.
"When you’re carrying trophies like this, no one’s mad," Karl-Anthony Towns said, cradling the regional championship trophy in the locker room. "No one’s mad when you’re holding hardware like this, and you’re going to the Final Four."
There is one more trophy for them to hold, and they would clutch it as unbeaten national champions. The flawless ride doesn’t look as inevitable as 48 hours ago, but go back to something West Virginia’s Devin Williams said after the Mountaineers were crunched by Kentucky.
"You can’t stop something that’s destined."
Is it? With all these other heavyweights in town? Most of all, that’s what this Final Four is about.