They’re about ready to go here. This is the storyline menu for the Final Four. Which one grabs you?
Auburn, rarely mentioned before in basketball conversation, and its ride to glory through a forest of bluebloods? That’s the Charles Barkley option.
Michigan State, and the Tom Izzo empire built on toughness? That’s the Magic Johnson choice.
Virginia, and its Redemption Tour, hoping to remember 2019 as it forgets 2018? The Ralph Sampson selection.
Texas Tech? It’s hard to come up with a nationally famous basketball alum to be in the Red Raiders’ corner, but maybe that's part of their common-man charm.
But lots of well-known faces are putting on their school colors this weekend. “It just tells you,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was saying Friday, “this tournament transcends American life.”
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We’re part of the way to a memorable Final Four already. The year ends in 9, which is a good sign. Check the past.
The 2009 Final Four gave us North Carolina completing one of the most dominant tournament runs in recent times, with six wins by an average of 20.2 points . . .
Connecticut announced its arrival as a national force by upsetting Duke for its first championship in 1999 . . .
Michigan outlasted Seton Hall in overtime by one point – the last one-point title game -- with coach Steve Fisher on the job for only a month in 1989, and that was two days after the Wolverines got past lllinois 83-81 in a semifinal that had 33 lead changes . . .
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UCLA completed history’s first threepeat in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s final college game in 1969 . . .
California beat Oscar Robertson and Cincinnati one night and Jerry West and West Virginia the next in 1959 . . .
Kentucky swept to the title with three double digit victories in 1949, after losing its first game in the NIT . . .
The tournament was born with Oregon as the first champion on 1939 . . .
So it’s a high bar for storylines. But the 2019 Final Four has a lot of potential.
If Auburn wins . . .
It becomes an epic tale of the football school that could, forcing its way into the inner sanctum of college basketball by pushing past one traditional heavyweight after another. Can you imagine, a program with so little pedigree holding up a championship trophy after beating Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and maybe Michigan State?
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“If we’re truly trying to make history as part of our fate – sometimes there’s fate and other times there’s opportunity,” Pearl said Friday.
“At some point,” said forward Anfernee McLemore, “people have to understand we can play and beat some of the best teams.”
💪🏽As student-athletes, @AuburnMBB players prepare for their futures both on the court and in the classroom.— Auburn University (@AuburnU) April 5, 2019
Accounting major @akmclemore prioritizes academics and likes to achieve his goals. ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/kmSO04260c
Because, really, who thinks of basketball when you think of Auburn? Except lately. Even some of the players who have led the Tigers here did not choose Auburn for its vast basketball horizons.
“When I first came to Auburn I wanted to further my basketball career, it’s not something I’d seen as going to the Final Four,” senior Bryce Brown said. “It’s just changed so much. It’s not something I really envisioned.”
Pearl told the story Friday of how Auburn basketball gear was once rarely seen around campus – even on the players. Not like football or soccer or baseball, or other successful programs. “We weren’t holding up our end,” Pearl said. Not anymore. “I don’t look at it as our guys are big men on campus. I look at it as our guys now have a right to fit into the rest of campus.”
Football is supposed to make Auburn’s headlines, but Steven Pearl – assistant and son of the head coach -- mentioned how that’s used in basketball recruiting. “Come on a visit to Auburn on a Saturday in football season. You see those kids’ eyes light up. I can come play basketball here and watch a football game on Saturdays?”
Indeed, Brown visited on a game weekend. “That almost sold me by itself.”
So when the Tigers arrived home last week after winning the Midwest Regional, and there was toilet paper coating Toomer’s Corner, it seemed like November, with a fresh win over Alabama. “That’s exactly what it felt like,” Steven Pearl said.
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One other thing would be part of an Auburn championship story -- as a boost for a community ravaged by a tornado in early March that killed 23, including three children. Bruce Pearl said the main force of the storm was seven miles from his house. Afterward, the team helped distribute water and diapers to the stricken.
“When the kids came back to school, a couple of students, their desks were empty, and there were some classmates that had to go through some real counseling, and we wanted to help that process,” he said. “As soon as this is over, we’re going to go back. We’ll never replace the loss of life, but my message is, let’s not forget about the storm. We need to rebuild the community and it’s going to take a lot longer and a lot more than just water and diapers.”
If Michigan State wins . . .
Tom Izzo’s Spartans deal in muscle and will. Always have. “I feel like resiliency got us here,” Nick Ward said. But since so many of his teams have shown up in the Final Four, playing the same way, another championship would further beg what has become an intriguing question.
Is Michigan State, with all its hardware, becoming more blueblood than blue-collar?
"I think winning it might put us at the top of the bluebloods, right next to Duke, right there next to Kansas and Kentucky," Xavier Tillman said.
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But Izzo had a vow. "I'm going to stay blue-collar. And to me, blue-collar is the way I always want to be. But I want to keep winning, like the blueblood.
“That’s for all you to determine. For me to determine is to keep this thing where we’re a working man’s team, just like my father and grandfather, no different. Every day, go to work with your little chisel, get down in the mines and do your job.
“If I change that, it will be time for me to go.”
The embodiment of that style is Cassius Winston, who has led these Spartans through every travail, including injuries to two starters. “We’ve got more to accomplish, more to get done,” he said. If one player makes this Final Four his own, the best guess is that it will be him.
“I know he’s going to be challenged on Saturday night,” Izzo said. “Once in a while, when I go to bed, I think, `well, they’re going to do this and this and this to him.’ I‘ve said that a lot of times about a lot of teams, and they did, and yet he still found a way.”
What a championship would do is throw an even brighter spotlight not just on a team, or a star, or a coach, but an iron-minded culture. One that brings back past icons such as Magic Johnson to help with the cause.
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“I think that those former guys help the current guys know what a family is really about, what a brotherhood is really about,” Izzo said. “Then injuries and things that happen throughout a season, either make you or break you. They either bring you closer together or you succumb to them and dissolve.
“I think the mental toughness has been because we had to adjust to survive.”
He is the only coach with the previous Final Four experience to understand what is about to happen, but he dismisses that. “They don’t let us play the game.”
If Texas Tech wins . . .
A champion always, always, always gets remembered when it has authored an unlikely saga of beating the odds. And it doesn’t get much more unlikely than a team picked to finished seventh in its conference . . . representing a program never before in the Final Four . . . with a roster of mostly new players, some with a lot of mileage on them . . . led by a coach who has bounced around every corner of the coaching profession, from the obscure to this well-lit stage.
The Red Raiders are to the one-and-done power schools as the North Pole is to the South. “We might have a couple of one-and-done graduate assistants,” coach Chris Beard said.
Add the head coach, his assistant and his players together, and their journey to Texas Tech has zigged and zagged through 34 different schools. They are the young and the restless and the unsung and the unexpected and the under-rated, and they are proud of it.
“Even if we continue to win, we’re still going to feel like an underdog. I just feel like it’s great to have a chip on your shoulder,” senior guard Brandone Francis said. “It’s amazing to wake up knowing you have to prove somebody wrong. That’s where our energy comes from. Until they quit doubting us, that’s the motivation we’re going to use.”
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It’s not easy, fitting together so many pieces from hither and yon. That’s why Beard has won some national coach of the year awards. “ What you fight in those situations is time, and we try to compete with time by spending a lot of time together and developing relationships quicker than most,” he said.
Guard Matt Mooney will do as an example of what Texas Tech is feeling this week. He used to play at South Dakota and was describing how basketball practice in the old arena there would involve sharing the place with runners on the track, golfers hitting into the net, football players lifting weights.
“You’re right there in the middle of it. You get used to it,” he said. But this week, he was headed out to practice on a court in the middle of a plush and huge stadium.
“I’m living a dream right now. I never would have thought this was going to happen. It’s something I’ve wanted to do my whole life,” he said. “It makes us all very appreciative of each other and the journey. It makes you look back at where you started. We’re all living this thing together.”
This is the best storyline for Texas Tech: Its championship would be about dreaming.
“Even dreaming about it doesn’t live up to it,” Tariq Owens said. “Nothing was ever easy for anybody in our team. It took a lot for us to get to this point and I think that’s why we play the way we do, why we have such a chip on our shoulder, because nothing was given to anybody on our team.”
They have been willing to sacrifice to get here, such as the worst thing imaginable for a college kid. They give up their cell phones on road trips.
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“Some of the younger guys aren’t the biggest fans of it,” senior Norense Odiase said. “I said it, Jarrett (team star Culver) backed me up, along with the other guys. Basically they just have to, it’s no choice. But they see us winning.”
Meanwhile, Beard has given up desserts all season. Well, sort of.
“Did you know Pop-Tart is not a dessert? It’s a breakfast,” he said Friday. “I’ve eaten a lot of Pop-Tarts since October.”
Auburn’s toilet paper and Texas Tech’s Pop-Tarts. It’s a big Final Four for Charmin and Kellogg.
If Virginia wins . . .
It would be a road to a shining moment at the very top that began in utter darkness at the very bottom. The loss to UMBC, becoming the fist No. 1 seed to lose to a 16, has never fully gone away, not even here.
“When you’re the first someone to do something in history, there’s only one way to go from there and that’s up, and that’s what we tried to do,” Kyle Guy said Friday. “We tried to just put one foot in front of another for the next 12 months.”
Why, for an example, would anyone this week bring up a post-loss press conference that happened more than a year ago? Tony Bennett did, relating how he told Ty Jerome and Guy they had to be the players at the post-UMBC conference, partly to spare the seniors, partly because he believed that would start the road back, a half-hour after the defeat.
“I told them, `It’s going to be one of the hardest things you ever have to do, how you’re feeling and what you’re going to have to respond to, but it’s going to mark your life, and this is going to be something we’re going to try to overcome,’” Bennett said. “So really, from that moment until now, it’s been trying to be intentional as a program, as a team, to respond to what transpired there.”
Guy was at a very different kind of microphone Friday, and described that night. “All I wanted to do was put my face in my hands and cry. We just tried to be strong for our families and the program and just tried to answer questions as well as we could. We got a lot of stupid questions, which was beyond irritating. Sometimes people forget that we’re just 18 to 22 year old kids trying to have fun. I’ll never forget that.”
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A year ago, Guy was refusing to watch the tournament. “I only watched one game, UMBC’s second game, because I was rooting for them. That was the only game I watched. I didn’t want any part of it.”
But Jerome did. “I watched every game after we lost. It was painful but that’s part of basketball. It’s part of being a student of the game. You have to learn, no matter how painful it is, you have to learn from your mistakes.”
So they learned and adapted and moved forward, each in his own way. Guy has come to the Final Four with a picture from the UMBC game still on his cell phone. “I just think it was a life changing moment on and off the court, and I didn’t want to forget it,” he said.
To have come through all they have, to go from an historical humiliation to the school’s first national championship -- would it get more fairy tale than that? Or is this trip here, secured by a remarkable escape against Purdue, all the atonement they need?
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“Getting here was a journey in itself,” Guy said. “Winning two more, we could finally be satisfied, and completely get the monkey off our back.”
Total atonement? “Two more would put that in concrete.”
Yeah, as memorable drama goes, any of those will be worth its 9.