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Mike Lopresti | | April 5, 2019

19 reasons to love this year's wild and wacky Final Four

Michigan State ready to cash in at the Final Four

You say your bracket is a train wreck and your favorite teams are deader than Toys “R” Us? You feel disoriented at a Final Four without Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina or Kansas — only the fourth time in 32 years that’s happened? Or a night of basketball with no Zion highlights? And you don’t even know where Lubbock, Texas or Auburn, Alabama are?

THE BRACKET: Print the official 2019 March Madness bracket

Relax. There are still reasons to like the Final Four. Here are 19 of them, before they gather in Minneapolis.

1.) Nice warm-up act.

The four regional championships produced a combined 42 lead changes, 26 ties, two overtime games, a one-pointer in regulation and one decided by six points. Yes Virginia, there is a No. 1 seed left. You’re it.

The results shifted the narrative of the tournament. It was supposed to be Duke as the team to beat. But flirt with trouble enough times, it’ll find you. Even Duke. The Blue Devils’ last three games were settled by four points, and their exit was so dramatic, the coach who beat Mike Krzyzewski sympathized. “I think I would have been crushed,” Tom Izzo said.

2.) The possibilities.

Virginia, Texas Tech and Auburn would all be first-time champions. Michigan State for a third. The fact the entire field can claim only two past titles — both the Spartans’ — is the lowest in a Final Four in 29 years.

3.) The value of upperclassmen.

These teams all have veterans who do a lot of the heavy lifting. The one-and-done magazine cover players from Duke and Kentucky get a lot of conversation during the season. In late March, not so much lately. The month is turned over to the Cassius Winstons, Ty Jeromes, Bryce Browns and Matt Mooneys of the world. “I’m senior. I just didn’t want to go home,” Brown said of helping Auburn get past Kentucky. He spoke for many.

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4.) The unabashed thrill of first-time schools.

Chris Beard to the media after beating Gonzaga: “Texas Tech is going to the Final Four. Some of you look surprised.”

Bruce Pearl after knocking off Kentucky: “This is important. At Auburn in athletics, we’re not Cinderellas in anything. We’re really, really good in all those other sports. We win championships. Been a long time since men’s basketball has been good. That’s what makes it so special for us.”

5.) The Big Ten holding its breath.

It’s been 19 long years since its last national championship. That was Michigan State, and here the Spartans are again, on the 40th anniversary of the Magic Johnson title over Larry Bird, no less. In East Lansing, that feels like karma. Especially since Magic was in the stands Sunday.

ELITE EIGHT MADNESS: Everything you need to know about Michigan State and Auburn's wins

6.) Defense.

The numbers suggest this bunch likes to make life difficult for offenses, Texas Tech came into the weekend second in the nation in field goal percentage defense, Michigan State third, Virginia fifth. Auburn was second in steals (the Tigers are now third), Michigan State fifth in blocked shots, Virginia first in scoring defense and Texas Tech third. In other words, don’t expect 93-91. “It’s going to be grind city again,” Izzo said of next week.

7.) Conference players of the year who did not stray far from home.

The Big 12 and Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver, who went to high school three miles from campus in Lubbock. The Big Ten and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, who grew up just down the road from East Lansing in Detroit.

8.) Bruce Pearl’s ladder.

He coached Milwaukee to its first Sweet 16, Tennessee to its first Elite Eight and now Auburn to it First Final Four. Up, up, up.

CINDERELLA STATUS: Auburn makes program history with Elite Eight win over Kentucky

9.) Lots of reasons for emotions.

Take Virginia’s Kyle Guy, dropping to his knees on the court after the win over Purdue. Hey, there was a reason. That’s what atonement looks like. UMBC is just a fading memory for a program that had to wear it like a scarlet letter, times four. So . . . same post-game posture for Guy as 2018, very different feeling. “I was definitely flashing back to when I was on my knees last year, and I did it again” he said. “That was just overflowing with joy.”

Or the Auburn Tigers finding a new gear when injured star Chuma Okeke — who will spend Final Four week in surgery for his torn ACL — showed up behind their bench in the second half against Kentucky. His pain and bad luck are their cause. That might ring a bell with the 2013 Louisville Cardinals and Kevin Ware.

Or Izzo, fighting tears, having wondered if he would ever know this feeling again. Especially this season, when his players kept getting hurt. “I’ve always got some goal that I haven’t reached yet,” he said Sunday.

10.) A chance to watch the former Texas student manager coach in the Final Four.

And the former junior college coach. And the old coach of the South Carolina Warriors of the ABA. And the coach who took the UNLV job for 19 days. Wait, a second. All that’s the same guy. Chris Beard has been on a journey. He brings his daughters to press conferences, and likes Lucky Charms cereal because it reminds him of the modest days. “Growing up my whole life watching these press conferences, games and all that, and the guy that always gets there (to the Final Four) says indescribable, and I’m like, oh, give us something better than that,” he said. “But I don’t have anything better. It’s indescribable.”

Andy Katz chats with Texas Tech after its Elite Eight win

11.) Monkeys off the back.

Virginia after last year, of course. But also Izzo, improving on that conspicuous 1-11 record against Mike Krzyzewski. “We just doubled our win total against Duke,” Izzo said. And Auburn and Texas Tech finally breaking through.

12.) The international tinge.

Are they celebrating in Guinea, now that Mamadi Diakite has hit helped save Virginia and broken Purdue’s hearts? Do the kids in Bologna, Italy put in extra time so they can shoot free throws like Texas Tech’s Davide Moretti?

13.) The climb of Tony Bennett ever higher on the top coaches-o-meter.

This was a fine way to get people to stop talking about the UMBC game. “I just know it was really hard to lose in the first round,” he said. “It was, as I said, a painful gift. It was so humbling, but it drew me and drew our team closer in a way we wouldn’t have gone.”

MOMENTS OF MADNESS: Relive the final moments of Virginia's win over Purdue

14.) Reverend Hiawatha.

That’s Hiawatha Culver, who when he isn’t giving the pregame prayer for Texas Tech, ha watched one son — Trey — compete as one of the nation’s best college high jumpers at 7-7 3/4 and another son — Jarrett — lead the Red Raiders to the Final Four. This year’s Sister Jean?

15.) Virginia’s long wait.

It has been 35 years since the last Final Four. The last time they showed up, there was no shot clock or 3-point line. Now they’re the last ACC team left standing.

16.) The unusual revival of Kyle Guy.

One of Virginia’s most potent outside threats was in a shooting nosedive in the NCAA tournament, going 9-for-36, and 3-for-29 in 3-pointers. The questions came every day, and his answer was pretty much always the same: “I don’t believe in slumps.” Then he rolled his ankle late in the first half against Purdue, limped off, came back the second half and shot 7-for-13 and 5-for-9 from beyond the arc, and finished with 25 points.

Watch: Classic ending to Virginia vs Purdue

STOPPING EDWARDS: Kyle Guy and Co. held off Purdue despite 42 points from Carsen Edwards

17.) The unsung who are still on the dance floor.

Not one Auburn player says he was recruited by the murderer’s row of big names the Tigers just beat — Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky. “There’s a lot of underdogs out here, a lot of second-chance kids put here, and we overcame,” Pearl said.

Texas Tech was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12, which helped give birth to their mantras. “We weren’t the highest recruited guys, but that doesn’t mean we can’t compete with the best in the country,” Matt Mooney said. “We just try to work at it every day. Don’t Lose Your Chip represents that.  Secret’s in the Dirt represents that.”

18.) Auburn’s seed.

Auburn is No. 5. The other three No. 5s lost in the first round. And you know how many have won the national championship in 40 years of seeding? None.

19.) Auburn’s name.

Here’s a slice of trivia: Auburn is the first school to ever play in the Final Four whose school name is a color. (Not the nickname, the school name). There are only three others in Division I — Navy, Siena and Brown. They won’t be in Minneapolis. But neither will Duke or Kentucky or Gonzaga.

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