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Mike Lopresti | | March 28, 2019

The four South Region teams hope to move beyond their past, make a historic run to the championship

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — There are regions packed with traditional March juggernauts; teams with stacks of Final Four trips, and more national championships than you can shake a pompom at.

This isn’t one of them.

Welcome to the Famished Four.  The South Regional brings together a quartet with gargantuan appetites to move forward. Each comes with a strong basketball program, but also lugging the baggage of gnawing moments in their past that could haunt, if they let them.

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Tennessee is here.

The Vols have never seen the inside of a Final Four. They have spent their history working to be a worthy rival for next door neighbor Kentucky, and have beaten the Wildcats more than any other team. But one stat is particularly painful: Kentucky has advanced to the Elite Eight level 37 times. Tennessee once.

“We wanted to leave our legacy,” Grant Williams was saying Wednesday. “I feel like we’ve done a good job of that. There’s more to do, and more to prove.”

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Virginia is here.

The Cavaliers are one of the ACC’s perennial powers, a steady presence lately in the top 10, and fervently wish to be considered among the elite in their blue-blooded league. But their last Final Four was 1984, and they have never played in a national championship game. Since 1984, their ACC cousins Duke and North Carolina have been in the Final Four 23 times.

There was the matter of the UMBC game last March, and the lingering stigma. Which is why coach Tony Bennett walked into the locker room with a stuffed monkey on his back after the Cavaliers blew past Oklahoma in the second round. Yep, the monkey was then yanked off.

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“Only those of us who have been part of last year’s team and been through this year and all the things that were there can appreciate it,” he said. “We’ll be bonded for life by this experience.”

Purdue is here.

The Boilermakers have won more conference championships than any school in the Big Ten, and just added another. But six different league teams have played in the national championship game in the past 17 years, and Purdue is not one of them. The Boilermakers are 2-9 in their past nine Sweet 16 trips. Their last Final Four was 39 years ago.

“I wasn’t even alive then,” Carsen Edwards said.

Oregon is here.

The Ducks will forever be at the top of the national champions list, as the first in 1939. But it took them 78 years to get back to the Final Four, and then an excruciating one-point loss to North Carolina knocked them out in 2017. Since they helped get this whole thing started in ’39, there have been 56 different schools appear in the national championship game, including the likes of Dartmouth, Jacksonville, Seattle and Dayton. But never again Oregon.

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Besides that, the Ducks are trying to answer the legion of critics about the Pac-12, and their No. 12 seeding.

“Everyone doesn’t really quite believe in us, doesn’t want us to win, they want us out of the tournament,” Kenny Wooten said. “It feels like it’s just us against the world. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

It would seem opportunity is the theme this weekend in Louisville.

Tennessee could go where no Tennessee team has gone before. Except for the women. Certainly, the Vols must be aware of the historical potential here.  “I think they do, because people talk about it with them,” coach Rick Barnes said.

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“We’re just trying to win games at this point,” Admiral Schofield said Wednesday before practice. “I think when you start getting caught up in all that is when you’ve lost already. I know for a fact, most of these guys don’t think about that. Maybe Grant. He’s a big analytical guy like that.”

So let’s go ask the big analytical guy, All-American Williams.

“If you start focusing on trying to make history, that’s how you lose the moment. You start focusing on the future, you lose track of a talented Purdue team we have to play Thursday night.”

Sounds like it’s unanimous.

“Come in our building, we don’t have a lot of motivational sayings or those type things,” Barnes said. “What we talk about is being the best team we can be, and let’s see where that takes us.

“I do know that there’s a lot they will be proud of, and in the moment right now, you don’t think a lot about that. You just focus on what you have to do, and hope that you can continue.”

Virginia, having pushed Black Friday against UMBC further into the past, could just about eradicate it completely. One game at a time, of course.

“The way last year ended, it’s very easy to stay in the moment and not overlook anybody,” Kyle Guy said. That included coming from 14 points behind in the first round against Gardner-Webb, when the ghosts of 2018 were everywhere.

“You had to look that in the eye. It was ironic. We were a No. 1 seed again, and then to be down 14 points  . . .” Bennett said. The Cavaliers regrouped, won, moved on. The relief had to be palpable.

“Here we are,” Bennett said. “I think certainly there’s an enjoyment and freedom in it, but there’s also a desire to play well and advance again. Burdened, unburdened, doesn’t really matter in my opinion. You just step up the challenge that’s there. You have joy in it, you have focus in it, and you’ve got to be able to look both victory and defeat in the eye and say it’s a possibility, and go forward.

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“Our guys have worked very hard to get to this spot.”

Speaking of moving forward, Guy went 2-for-15 against Oklahoma, including 0-for-10 in 3-pointers.

“When you have selfless guys who keep passing you the ball, even though I’m 0-for-10 from 3, it brings me more confidence than I could ever bring to myself,” he said. “Me shooting 0-for-10 is not going to stop me from shooting 10 more tomorrow.”

Purdue could end a drought that has lasted two generations. The Boilermakers have traveled a winding road this season to get here, starting out 6-5, and then coming of age in Big Ten play.

“We never stopped believing, even when everybody else gave up on us,” Matt Haarms said.

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“I remember at one point in our season, our main focus was, we’ve got to step it up so we can at least make the tournament,” Edwards said. And now the Boilermakers are here as a No. 3 seed.

They are here because Edwards got on one of his rolls and torched Villanova for 42 points. Haarms sat by his locker Wednesday and described what it’s like to be on the court when his teammate starts pouring in the 3-pointers.

“It’s like you’re a witness. He just pulls up and you go, wait a minute, it just went in. And then on the third one you’re like, do I rebound? Then the sixth one, you’re like, no, I definitely don’t rebound. Don’t tell Coach Painter I said that. Well, he probably saw it on film. Nine 3-pointers later, you look up at the scoreboard . . . and he’s (at) 40? It’s ridiculous.”

A lot of Boilermaker faithful out there wonder where that hot hand might lead.

“I think (a Final Four) would be great, not just for our fans but also our former players,” coach Matt Painter said. “We have a lot of guys who have sacrificed through the years and had really, really good seasons, but haven’t been able to put that cherry on the top and get to a Final Four. I think that would be great for a lot of people that have Purdue blood in them.”

Oregon would be the lowest seed ever to advance to a Final Four. Sounds like a Cinderella story, though the Ducks, from a power league and in the Final Four two years ago, don’t quite sound the part. Then again, when you turn around a floundering season at the 11th hour and start surprising the world . . . . 

“It doesn’t get much better, just to come out here and upset teams, we all like that,” Payton Pritchard said.

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“It’s been fun, being able to bring the doubters to the realization that we are able to compete with the top teams and that we’re able to give teams a hard time,” Wooten said.

“Our advantage is we really don’t have anything to lose.”

So they are teams with four different stories, but very much the same sense of urgency.

Virginia’s Ty Jerome could have been speaking for all of them when he observed Wednesday, “That’s what it’s all about, staying in the moment, staying in the present; the present is all you have. So if you’re worried about the future or going to the Final Four, you’re going to miss these moments, traveling with your team, being right here. You can’t take it for granted.”

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Or as his coach, Bennett, said, “Obviously, everyone here is desperate to advance.”

Obviously. It’s the Famished Four.

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