This just in from the Numerology Department. It’s a prediction for the Final Four, never mind that’s more than five months away. Numbers can offer early forecasts, just like the Old Farmer’s Almanac.The narrative of the 2018 national champions will be one of comeback and redemption.
It’ll be the Kentucky Wildcats.
Who says so? History says so. You know what happens on years that end with the number “8,” right? No?
Kansas trailed Memphis 60-51 with 2:12 left in the championship game, and the Tigers seemed halfway up the ladder for the net-cutting. But they weren’t 339th in the nation in free throw shooting for nothing.
They missed four of five from the line, and that left the door ajar for Mario Chalmers to bury a 3-pointer over Derrick Rose at 2.1 seconds to force the overtime that Kansas dominated, and won 75-68. “Probably the biggest shot ever made in Kansas history,” coach Bill Self called it. As for the coach from Memphis, “It will probably hit me like a ton of bricks tomorrow, that we had it in our grasp.” So said John Calipari.
By the end, the Kentucky players understood their legacy would forever go under the name of the Comeback Cats. That was after they rallied from 17 points behind in the second half to beat Duke 86-84 in the regional championship – take that, Christian Laettner – and from 46-36 down in the final 18 minutes to beat Stanford 86-85 in overtime in the Final Four, and from 41-31 after the first half to blow past Utah 78-69 -- the largest halftime deficit ever overcome in a championship game.
Maybe the biggest comeback story of all was their coach. Orlando “Tubby” Smith was one of 17 kids born to sharecroppers, but ended up on college basketball’s biggest stage, winning the championship in his first season in Lexington.
“I think it is a mental approach to the game, the way we work in practice,” he said then of his team’s knack for rallying. “We do a lot of late-game situations where we practice coming back. We teach them how to come back.”
Who saw Kansas coming? The Jayhawks were unranked with 11 losses, four of them in a row at one stretch. But strange forces were at work in the NCAA Tournament. Kansas was in line to play No. 3 seed North Carolina State, No. 2 seed Pittsburgh and no. 1 seed Purdue – and all three were upset. So Danny Manning led the sixth-seeded upstarts directly to the championship game, where they decided to get in a track meet with Big 12 foe Oklahoma, who had beaten them twice during the season and won its first by tournament games by an average of 17 points.
It was 50-50 at halftime, and the Jayhawks struggled with 18 turnovers in the first 25 minutes. But they had too much destiny to be stopped. And too much Manning. He contributed 31 points, 18 rebounds and five steals to the 83-79 win.
They remain the last unranked team to run the table, and their 11 defeats are still the most ever for a national champion. Plus, no title game winner in the three decades since has matched their 25 turnovers. All that together gave birth to the tagline for this team: Danny and the Miracles.
“This wasn’t a gift,” Manning said. “A lot of people said we were lucky, but what’s luck? Luck is when preparation meets opportunity, and we took that opportunity.”
Kentucky carried massive expectations, which in Lexington is like trying to lug a suitcase of bricks uphill. The pressure was wire-to-wire, and the Wildcats fully understood nothing less than a championship would satisfy their demanding masses. Which is why for the regular season, they had only two defeats, and probably even fewer smiles. They stone-faced their way to the Final Four, and not long before the title game against Duke, coach Joe B. Hall said the oddest thing: “This season was without celebration for us.”
Relief – and celebration -- finally came when Jack Givens scored 41 points to push them past Duke for the title, 94-88. Looking back, the closest call came in the regional championship when they survived 52-49, thanks partly to the struggles – 2-for-10 shooting and six turnovers – of the other team’s point guard. A precocious Michigan State freshman named Magic Johnson.
The game of the year, the decade – the century? – was supposedly in January, played on a court in the middle of the infield at the Houston Astrodome when Elvin Hayes led the Cougars to a 71-69 upset of mighty No. 1 UCLA and the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. So ended the Bruins’ 47-game winning streak. It was a landmark moment for college basketball that foretold the future of big TV packages and huge crowds.
By the Final Four, the UCLA Bruins didn’t care much about TV ratings or gate receipts. They wanted another shot at Houston. “We haven’t really said anything publicly, but we’re a vindictive team,” guard Mike Warren would say.
The night started ominously for Houston, with its student manager arrested outside the arena, charged with scalping players’ tickets. It ended 101-69. The UCLA zone press tormented the Cougars, and the Bruins attacked in waves, with their starting lineup scoring 19-19-19-17-14. Abdul-Jabbar had 19 points and 18 rebounds. Hayes scored 10 points, or 29 fewer than in January. “That’s the greatest exhibition of basketball I’ve ever seen,” Houston coach Guy Lewis said afterward.
UCLA mashed North Carolina 78-55 the next night in a championship finale that felt like a postscript. Abdul-Jabbar’s class won three national titles and lost but two games. Nearly 50 years later, forward Lynn Shackelford would call the atonement against Houston, “the best game we ever played. Coach Wooden said that was the closest our team ever came to reaching its potential.”
Adolph Rupp was so unimpressed by his Kentucky team, he said before the season, “They might be pretty good barnyard fiddlers, but we have a Carnegie Hall schedule, and it will take violinists to play that schedule.”
During the season, an exasperated Rupp mentioned how his team had a habit for “fiddlin’ around and fiddlin’ around, then finally pulling it out at the end.”
Thus, the world came to know the Wildcats as the Fiddlin’ Five. The music was sweet enough when they beat Seattle 84-72 for the national championship.
The NCAA Tournament was played for the 10th time, and it got a glimpse of how blue the future would be. Kentucky won its first national championship.
Now the Wildcats own eight. Half of them were won in years that ended in “8.” And when Kentucky didn’t win in those numbered years, there was UCLA’s historic vengeance, Manning’s miracle, Chalmers’ shot. Epic tales of persistence and drama.
Here comes the 2017-2018 season. You’ve been warned.