It is a Final Four with history in the air, with three teams ravenous to finally get there. And North Carolina, with its sense of deja vu.
It's the first time for Gonzaga, of course, as every man, woman and child in the city of Spokane knows. For South Carolina, too. Not just the Gamecocks, the whole state, from Greenville to Myrtle Beach. Which means it is the first time the Final Four has had two newcomers in 21 years. They'll play one another Saturday.
It's the first time for Oregon since 1939, back when the Ducks won a NCAA tournament that still had fresh paint on it. With Gonzaga and Oregon both attending, this is first time the Final Four ever has had two teams from the Pacific time zone. And why not since this is the first Final Four ever played in the state of Arizona?
“All we wanted was a chance,” said South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell, but he could have been talking about Gonzaga, too. And Oregon.
“I wanted to do it more for them than I wanted to do it for myself,” said Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss, talking about the long-waiting coaches and fans of Gonzaga. But he could have been talking about Oregon. And South Carolina, too.
And then there is North Carolina, the Final Four elder of the bunch.
Did you see Sunday night? Did you see the Tar Heels tied by an incredible Malik Monk Kentucky shot, then send guard Theo Pinson racing the ball back down the court as the last seconds dwindled — "Go! Go! Go!" Roy Williams pleaded — and then turn and pitch to a trailing Luke Maye, who calmly buried the jumper that won the game?
Know what that looked like, so closely it was eerie? Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacano pitching back to Kris Jenkins last year, so Jenkins could win the national championship and break North Carolina’s heart. Different stakes, different spot on the floor, but still, nearly a replica. And sitting over there in the North Carolina section Sunday, watching his adopted brother Nate Britt play for the Tar Heels? Kris Jenkins.
There are things that happen in March you couldn’t possibly make up.
“We had the ball in our hands this time,” Pinson said. “It was crazy to think about. Same thing. I really can’t wait to see it.”
Sitting next to Pinson in the locker room was Joel Berry II: “It’s great to be on the opposite side this time. I know how Kentucky feels.”
It is a Final Four about the quest for respect.
Oregon and Gonzaga know the national doubts about basketball in the West, which they say have been there for years. “We’re not going to go out there and prove anybody wrong,” Oregon’s Tyler Ennis said. “We just want to prove ourselves right, that we want to be the last team standing.”
South Carolina knows the assumption that the SEC is the primary force in another sport, but not this one. Not unless your name is Kentucky. “I feel like our team is the most underrated team in the country,” Thornwell said.
And then there is North Carolina.
The Tar Heels don’t lack for national renown for their program, but what about the sophomore with the 5.5-point scoring average who nailed the game-winning shot Sunday night? Who at the end of the day, with his 17 points, outscored each and every one of those stars on the Kentucky team?
Williams originally asked Maye to walk on as a freshman until a spare scholarship came open. Now Maye is a sophomore who the nation didn’t know — until this weekend. He scored 16 against Butler and then turned into Christian Laettner Sunday night, beating Kentucky at the buzzer of a regional final almost exactly 25 years after Laettner did. Tuesday is the exact anniversary.
“I knew I had confidence in myself and I wanted to prove people wrong, and show them I could play, and I proved it tonight,” Maye said afterward on the court, with some of the net that his shot had gone through hanging around his neck. “Lucky net right here,” he said, pointing to it.
It is a Final Four of successful coaches who have been finally made it up the ladder. Gonzaga’s Mark Few, South Carolina’s Frank Martin, Oregon’s Dana Altman all there for the first time, with legacies now more brightly lit than ever.
Except Few said going to the Final Four is not what he envisions as a proper legacy, but pointed toward his father, the Presbyterian minister for 54 years.
“He’s saved thousands of souls. He’s helped hundreds and thousands of people though all their tough times, and that’s the kind of legacy that I’m looking at. I’ve got a long ways to go to get to first base living up to that guy’s standard.”
And Martin talked not of being a Final Four coach, but the son of a woman who had to raise her family alone through some tough times, and how good it was to see her cry Sunday when South Carolina won the East.
“Strongest woman I’ve ever met. Husband runs out, leaves her, never gives her a penny. She never takes him to court, doesn’t make excuses. Worked . . . as a secretary. Raised my sister and I. We’d go to Wendy’s or Burger King every two Fridays. That was our family meal. She gave me the courage to try, and do this for a living.
“I made her cry one time when I was a teenager because I made the wrong choice. I’m never making her cry again for making the wrong choice. And watching her cry tears of joy because of all her sacrifices have allowed me and my sister to move forward in life, those are the tears that are important to me. That’s extending her life.”
And then there is Williams at North Carolina.
No first-time, finally-made-it breakthrough for him. This is his ninth Final Four between Kansas and the Tar Heels. But last year haunts him, as it does all the Tar Heels, and he so yearned for another chance. Should North Carolina win next weekend, that would be three championships, one more than Dean Smith, the mentor he loved. He wants very much to win, but the guess is it would bother him to pass Smith.
It is a Final Four of revival and redemption.
Thornwell back from suspension. Gonzaga mountain Przemek Karnowski — who has been part of an NCAA record 136 victories — recovered from back surgery last season, when it was so bad that it took him an hour to rise out of bed and get dressed. “It’s a miracle, and it’s as good a story as I’ve ever been associated with,” Few said.
Oregon’s Dillon Brooks back from foot surgery, that delayed his season and cost the Ducks some early angst. North Carolina recovered from Kris Jenkins, wanting to get it right this time.
It is a Final Four of defense.
Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament opponents have shot 33.7 percent and 6-for-39 from the 3-point arc in the first half. The Zags attack the perimeter and let Karnowski clean up anything that leaks through. “Their size bothers everybody around the rim,” West Virginia’s Bob Huggins said. “When you’re driving at the goal and you run into 7-1, 300-and-whatever-he-is, it’s hard to score.”
Oregon’s Jordan Bell just swatted eight Kansas shots. South Carolina has held 26 leading scorers this season beneath their average. North Carolina’s aim was to contain Monk. He scored 12 points — or 35 fewer than they last time these teams met.
It is a Final Four of hot hands.
Thornwell is averaging nearly 26 points in the tournament for South Carolina. Tyler Dorsey, who scored one point in Oregon’s last regular season game, has averaged 23.6 since, and is shooting 70.6 percent in the tournament. Maye just had two career highs in 48 hours, and the Tar Heels had no doubt about that last shot of his, no matter how lightly known his name, having watched him work.
“He does that countless hours in the gym, so I’m really not shocked he hit it,” Pinson said.
“Luke was in there a whole lot with me over the summer,” said Justin Jackson of their time spent on shooting. “There were some days we’d go in there and felt like we couldn’t throw it in the ocean, and we would always say, there’s no success without struggle. I think Luke is a testament to that.”
That mantra is what Jackson and Maye talked about Sunday as they cut down the nets.
By then, the Final Four had been set, with old and new, with the expected and the surprising. “You’re never going to achieve any dreams if you doubt, if you shortcut, if you have negativity, so that’s kind of what gets me going every day,” Martin said. “And I dreamt of South Carolina being in this moment.”
In the end,what we have here are four dreamers. And they’re headed for Arizona.