PHOENIX, Ariz. – No time like the first time, is there? So welcome to Gonzaga and South Carolina, excited rookies at this Final Four business, having never been here or done this. What you wonder is how much that will matter.
Will it be like tourists on their first trip to New York City, gazing up in awe at the skyline? Or can they show up here as newcomers and act like they own the place? We can ask recent history to see what happened with others.
You there, VCU, Butler, George Mason, how’d that work for you? Matter of fact, for a decent sample size, let’s go back 32 years to when the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, and check how maiden voyages in the Final Four have gone.
There have been 12 in those 32 years. Only three won a Final Four game once they got there – which is sure to go up Saturday since Gonzaga and South Carolina play one another. Only one won the national championship. (Hint: Its women’s team is pretty good, too).
“Some of our shots didn’t fall. Open shots we’d been making,” said Joey Rodriguez. “Almost felt like it wasn’t supposed to happen or something.”
Butler in 2010 . . . kept surviving and advancing, by two points over Murray State, four over Syracuse, seven over Kansas State (and Frank Martin). The Final Four was in downtown Indianapolis, six miles from Butler’s campus, and the Bulldogs nearly pulled it off. They beat Michigan State 52-50 – “If I wasn’t playing, I’d be a Butler fan,” Spartan coach Tom Izzo said that night – and then lost to Duke 61-59 when Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot at the buzzer famously hit the rim and bounced away. Not one second did the Bulldogs look like strangers to the Final Four.
George Mason in 2006 . . . took down the previous two national champions, North Carolina and Connecticut, but ran into a wall named Florida in the Final Four, 73-58. The basketball world was just getting an idea then how good those Gators were. “I think we’ve done something tremendous for college basketball, for the teams that are out there and watched us play,” George Mason's Tony Shinn said. “Just to show them that all you need is opportunity and a chance.”
Connecticut in 1999 . . . yep, the Huskies cut down the nets on their first trip. When they beat a 37-1 Duke team in the national championship game 77-74, many called it a great upset. “I think the Duke fans couldn’t believe it,” UConn’s Khalid El-Amin said. “I looked into their section and they just looked like they were shocked.”
But as coach Jim Calhoun correctly noted in dismissing this as some sort of miracle, “I think Duke’s a great team. But we’re 34-2.”
Minnesota in 1997 . . . was 31-3 going into the Final Four, but could not match Kentucky’s horses, 78-69. Infractions later had this appearance officially vacated.
Mississippi State and Massachusetts in 1996 – made it a two-rookie Final Four, just like this one. Mississippi State upset No. 1 seed Connecticut and No. 2 seed Cincinnati to get there, but lost to Syracuse 77-69.
UMass had a hot young coach named John Calipari, and the Minutemen were 35-1 and ranked No. 1 when they faced Kentucky. The chased the second-ranked Wildcats the entire game but never could quite catch them, 81-74. “I honestly learned that it isn’t life or death, winning basketball games,’’ Calipari said afterward. He’s gone on to win a lot more than he’s lost.
Florida in 1994 . . . proved they played more than football in Gainesville. The Gators showed up in their first Final Four and led Duke by 13 in the second half, but lost 70-65. They would return the next century. Again and again.
Seton Hall in 1989 . . . was in only its second tournament ever. The Pirates looked like vets in the Final Four, falling behind Duke by 18 and then winning by 17. They went into overtime in the championship game against Michigan and had the lead, until Rumeal Robinson’s free throws with three seconds left won it for the Wolverines. Nearly three decades later, anyone with a drop of Seton Hall blood still doesn’t think Robinson was fouled.
Arizona in 1988 . . . was 35-2, but lost in its first Final Four to Oklahoma 86-78. All one need do around Steve Kerr is utter the phrase “2-for-13,” and wait for the grimace. He hasn’t forgotten what he shot that night.
That makes the rookies a combined 4-11 at the Final Four. Might mean something Saturday, might not. Might be an advantage – over Oregon, too, since it has been 78 years for the Ducks -- that the heartache-hardened North Carolina Tar Heels have been down this road. Or not.
Gonzaga’s Mark Few: “I think everything is going to get ratcheted up 300 percent now, with the media, the demands, the time. The general distraction meter is going to go out the roof. And I think obviously the Carolina kids have dealt with that and managed it great, if you look at how they performed last year.
“But at the end of the day, when we get out there and the buzzer goes off for warm-ups and the ball goes up, all four of these teams have shown they’re ferocious competitors.”
The key is to act like you’ve been here before. The fascinating part of this weekend is, only one team has.