MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The heavy hitters are in the house at the South Regional. There’s UCLA on the FedExForum floor practicing Thursday, North Carolina next, Kentucky after that. Usually, you have to go to a state funeral to see this much royalty in one place.
Let’s do the count. The threesome accounts for 30.8 percent of all national championships (24 of the 78). At least one of them has appeared in 42.3 percent of all national championship games and 56.4 percent of all Final Fours, including 10 of the past 12. Together, they represent 152 NCAA tournament appearances and 350 wins.
What a three-ring circus. Who completes the foursome? Right, the plucky guys with the live bulldog mascot. They have an outstanding program and culture at Butler, but they’ve been thrown in with the really big dogs this weekend.
Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA. This is the bluest-blooded regional in recent memory. To have all three in the same zip code certainly makes you think in terms of famous trios. So before they ready, aim and fire ...
Who is most ready, willing and able to win the South? The wise men who analyze the sport can't see to agree. But then, blind mice would still see how each of these dynasties has reasons to win. North Carolina with the nation’s best rebounding margin, Kentucky with the momentum of a 13-game winning streak, and UCLA with all that snap, crackle and pop in its offense that some nights makes more noise than little pigs.With this three-alarm fire in the same arena, the people will be coming in planes, trains and automobiles. Because this collection of teams just isn’t any Tom, Dick and Harry. It’s watching basketball talent in 3D. Some of the locals even came Thursday to boo John Calipari when Kentucky took the floor to practice, remembering the day he bolted Memphis for Lexington in 2009. Some of them think back then, he had as many faces as Eve.
In the first game Friday, North Carolina has too much shake, rattle and roll for Butler, right? Well, the Bulldogs would love the Tar Heels to go for that one. Hook, line and sinker. Butler’s not just a group of stooges. The Bulldogs took care of Villanova twice, knocked off Arizona and Cincinnati and are very good at the basics: defense, turnovers, shooting. You know, basketball’s reading, writing and arithmetic.
Seven of the Bulldogs are shooting more than 50 percent in the NCAA tournament. They haven't trailed in two games. They also own a 3-2 record against North Carolina, including 2-0 vs. Roy Williams. And they're physical. These guys aren’t little kittens.
“I think between he and I, we have eight Final Fours, two national championships, about 15 Sweet 16s and a ton of conference championships and over 900 wins,” said Butler’s Chris Holtmann of Roy Williams Thursday, tongue in cheek. “So somebody is going to be really calm come opening tip, and somebody is going to be really nervous. I’ll let you figure that out.”It's a safe bet that Williams has been working morning, noon and night to make sure North Carolina doesn’t shoot 38 percent with 17 turnovers again, like the Tar Heels did against Arkansas. If they’re that far below their prime, they could be going, going, gone.
“A little unusual,” Williams called this region's collection of superpowers. “But I happen to think right now Butler is better than any of them; that’s the team we’re getting ready to play.
“I haven’t spent one second on any tape of UCLA or one second on any tape of Kentucky. I think I’d be a bad guy and a stupid guy if I did that. Butler, they’ve played us twice in the last five years and beaten us both times, so they’ve got my attention to say the least.”
Well, maybe the third time's the charm for Williams.
As for the second game, UCLA and Kentucky are the Twosome of Trophies with 19 national titles between them. To put that in perspective, it’s more than Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and Indiana put together. “Obviously, they’re rich in tradition,” the Bruins’ Lonzo Ball said Thursday of the Wildcats. “We are, too.”
Here was the good, bad and ugly for Kentucky from the first time the Wildcats played UCLA this season. They built a nice lead early, lost it quickly, and never caught up to the Bruins’ 97 points. Not often Kentucky scores 92 at home and loses. “If we want to win, we can’t give up 92 [again],” UCLA’s TJ Leaf said. But to get a victory in their first-ever trip to Rupp Arena, the Bruins ate that up with a knife, fork and spoon.
Coach Steve Alford seems on top of his game for the rematch, anyway. The Bruins took turns at mid-court shots at Thursday’s practice. When the ball came to him? Nothing but net, at the age of 52. “We’ve been shooting half-court shots all year,” Ball said. “That’s his first make.” Leaf mentioned how Alford was putting up 3-pointers at a practice not long ago and nailed something like 50 out of 52. "He can probably beat most of us in horse," Leaf said. "But other than that, he can’t do a whole lot.”
Meanwhile, it’s been ages since John Calipari has been to the Final Four. Two whole years. In Kentucky, they call that a drought. Now the Wildcats have a difficult bridge to cross to get back there, like billy goats gruff. Big Blue Nation is here in force. They were at Thursday’s practice by the thousands, in small, medium and large. Including Miss Kentucky Junior High, tiara and all.
But if the Wildcats lose again to the Bruins, the masses will have to console themselves at the pubs on nearby Beale Street. Some of them might end up a certain number of sheets to the wind.
Yes, this is the basketball version of watching Nicklaus, Palmer and Player tee off at the Masters. Three big swingers. Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA. When it comes to aura, they’re all bears. Not sure if that makes Butler Goldilocks.
Who to pick? We could play rock, paper and scissors to decide. Or just leave it up to the fates. No matter who survives, this is a feast of tradition, as tasty as a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. So each is on a mission here to seize the opportunity. Veni, vidi, vici.
“People are going to watch this game, not because I’m coaching and not because I came back to Memphis and not because Steve is coaching,” Calipari said. “They’re going to watch it because this is a talented two teams.”
Same for North Carolina. And only one walks away from here. Because you know what they say about legendary programs in the same regional -- three’s a crowd. Anything could happen in this land of giants. That’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.