Watch that last step to Final Four. It can be a doozy. Especially this magical, astonishing, extraordinary year.
The first weekend of the NCAA tournament has all the upset fervor. The last weekend has the aura of the Final Four. But what about here in the middle week, especially the regional championship games, whom someone once tagged the Elite Eight and made the name stick?
Drama. Lots of it. Since 2004, 13 of the 64 regional title games — one of every five — have gone overtime. Three on one dizzying weekend in 2005. Eleven more have been decided by one possession. So it would not take much, a bounce here, a wobble there, to change a great deal of college basketball history.
Christian Laettner misses that immortal turnaround jumper against Kentucky in 1992, which marks its 30th anniversary this Monday, by the way. One of the greatest tournament games ever played would be remembered as a 103-102 Kentucky victory. It would be Sean Woods’ one-handed banker with 2.1 seconds left that lived forever as a highlight, and Laettner’s name would not ring quite so loudly down through the years. Also, Mike Krzyzewski would have one less national championship, and never have repeated.
Kansas finds one more basket somewhere in the 50 minutes of its one-point double-overtime loss to Texas Western in 1966. The Jo Jo White shot that was ruled an instant too late at the end of the first overtime, for example. Lots of people — not all of them Jayhawks — always said it should have counted. Then Kansas goes to the Final Four and not Texas Western, and the groundbreaking title game of the Miners starting five Black players against Kentucky never happens.
Just imagine ...
Davidson hits a 3-pointer in the final seconds in its two-point loss to Kansas in 2008 — something the Wildcats had already done 37 times in that tournament. Then the Final Four sees the Stephen Curry Show, and Bill Self is still trying to win his first national championship. Davidson might have even gone on to take the title. After bringing down Gonzaga, Georgetown, Wisconsin and Kansas, it would not have seemed like a mission impossible.
Scott May doesn’t break his arm and Indiana scores three more points against Kentucky in 1975. Then John Wooden’s final UCLA game would probably have been against Bob Knight and an unbeaten Hoosier team for the national championship. Think that would have had the chance of being a memorable moment?
The left-handed, tie-breaking, game-winning, off-balance jumper by unknown Bob Heaton doesn’t bounce the right way on the rim and go in for Indiana State in the final seconds against Arkansas in 1979. There would have been overtime, and the surging Razorbacks might very well have won. Then, no Magic Johnson-Larry Bird first date in the national championship game.
Mamadi Diakite doesn’t throw in a last-gasp jumper to force overtime for Virginia in 2019. The Cavaliers never get to complete their famed redemption tour, and Purdue would still not be waiting 42 years to get back to the Final Four.
Another Virginia team, in 1983, doesn’t miss both shots it has in the final six seconds, down a point to North Carolina State. Then we never see the Lorenzo Charles championship dunk, Jim Valvano racing madly around the court and all the other memories from the Wolfpack shocking Houston’s Phi Slama Jama in the title game.
Change one play — just one — in a regional championship game and...
Wooden and UCLA do not win seven championships in a row. Long Beach State takes the Bruins' place in the 1971 Final Four.
UPSETS: We're tracking every upset in the NCAA men's tournament
North Carolina’s march to the 2017 championship, Roy Williams’ last, ends a week earlier.
George Mason never lives its unlikely Final Four dream. But Saint Joseph’s and Rhode Island do.
The Fab Five do not capture the nation’s fancy in 1992 as an all-freshman lineup.
Dean Smith never gets his second championship. Lute Olson never gets his only one.
In 1987, Indiana’s Daryl Thomas shot an air ball that Rick Calloway grabbed and put in to beat LSU by a point. If Thomas’ shot were better, had it hit the rim, Calloway likely could not have gotten to it. LSU wins, Indiana loses, and Keith Smart never takes that baseline shot to give Bob Knight his third championship.
All this is pertinent because the 2022 NCAA tournament could be on the brink of a massively historical weekend the next two days. We just don’t know which history yet.
Mike Krzyzewski might actually get to say goodbye at the Final Four, which would be a last chapter almost too remarkable to believe.
Saint Peter’s might grab the most amazing Final Four spot in the annals of the tournament, adding North Carolina to the hit list. That would mean a program that had never won an NCAA tournament game had beaten two programs — the Tar Heels and Kentucky — with 14 combined national championships.
Hubert Davis might be a Final Four coach in his first season at North Carolina, winning a regional matchup that nobody ever imagined, a No. 8 seed versus a No. 15 seed.
The ACC might put three teams in the Final Four — Duke, North Carolina, Miami — something not seen since the Big East did it 37 years ago.
Kansas might prevent this from being only the fourth Final Four ever and first in 11 years without a single No. 1 seed.
Miami might earn the first Final Four bid in its history. Arkansas might return to its first Final Four in 27 years. Houston might get back to the Final Four for a seventh time, maybe finally win a championship. Jay Wright could get back to a fourth Final Four for Villanova and maybe win a third title, which starts to put him in very rare air.
The Final Four might have two double-digit seeds — No. 10 Miami and No.15 Saint Peter’s. That's never happened before.
It is as if history itself is holding its breath. Something special is imminent.