This is a Final Four from Hollywood. Destiny, melodrama, even a few tears. This Final Four is a gift from the basketball gods.
How do we love thee, what is about to happen in New Orleans? Let us count the plots.
Everyone is invited to the Official Mike Krzyzewski Retirement Party.
After 1,569 games on the sideline, it has — with a flash of perfect storybook timing — come to this. One last game, or maybe two, on the stage he has owned like none other, and that now even includes John Wooden. Krzyzewski has won three of his national championships in Indianapolis, the other two in Minneapolis. He’ll try to get the last one in New Orleansapolis.
Might this 13th Final Four team — passing Wooden’s 12 — be his best? “Just like I don’t miss my daughters or my grandchildren, I’m not going to do that,” he said. One other thing he mentioned. “Let’s don’t talk about me.”
Yeah, good luck with that this week.
By the way, did you happen to notice who he’s playing?
Duke vs. North Carolina. This time it really, really counts.
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Yeah, they’ve put 257 times. All those nights on the outskirts of Krzyzewskiville or beneath the Dean Smith dome. But never in the tournament. Is it easy to prove just how even this rivalry has been, with the results of the past 100 meetings: 50 wins for Duke, 50 for North Carolina. We will finally see what it looks like in April’s glare.
Incidentally, know who has met before in the Final Four? Kansas and Villanova, just four years ago. The Wildcats hit a record 18 3-pointers, jumped ahead 22-4 and rolled to a 95-79 rout. The rematch comes Saturday.
Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Villanova. All the school colors are blue, and so is the blood.
These four teams have combined for 61 Final Four berths and 17 national championships — nearly 21 percent of the titles ever decided. They have also taken turns providing four of the most iconic shots in the history of the NCAA tournament.
Tuesday is the 40th anniversary of the Michael Jordan jumper from the wing that gave North Carolina the 1982 title over Georgetown.
Monday is the 30th anniversary of Christian Laettner’s Duke lightning bolt that beat Kentucky in the 104-103 overtime regional epic.
Villanova won a title in 2016 when Kris Jenkins buried a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Kansas’ title in 2008 came because Mario Chalmers’ 3 forced overtime in the final three seconds.
There have also been other legendary feats, courtesy of this quartet.
North Carolina beating Kansas in three overtimes in 1957 in the longest championship game ever played. . . Villanova missing one shot in the second half to famously bring down Georgetown for the 1985 title. . . Duke losing to UNLV by a record-setting 30 points in the 1990 championship game, then returning a year later to stun the unbeaten and supposedly unstoppable Rebels by two points in the Final Four. It was the victory that knocked the door down for all the Krzyzewski shining moments to come.
Add that lineage to the fact this will be the first fully-attended last weekend in three years. “I think this Final Four will have a different feel to it,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I think it will be a more talked-about and probably more anticipated tournament.”
Three Hall of Famers and a rookie.
Krzyzewski, Self and Jay Wright have won 2,605 games. North Carolina’s Hubert Davis has won 28. In case it comes up, the only man to win the national championship in his first season as a head coach was Michigan’s Steve Fisher, 33 years ago.
All the bumps in the road to get here.
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Remember Kansas going 0-4 in the Big 12 games in the state of Texas and getting blown away at home by Kentucky? Remember Duke losing three ACC games in Cameron, and getting drilled by Virginia Tech by 15 points in the conference tournament? Remember the back-to-back drubbings Villanova took in December—57-36 to Baylor, 79-59 to Creighton; the only consecutive 20-plus defeats Wright has suffered in 21 years with the Wildcats? Remember all the North Carolina double-digit poundings — 29 by Kentucky, 28 by Miami, 22 by Wake Forest, 20 by Duke, 17 by Tennessee?
There were times none of these looked like a Final Four team. But they all do now.
The emotions of Kansas.
Here are two reasons for this chance to mean something very special to the Jayhawks.
When the pandemic shut down the sport two years ago, they were 28-3, ranked No. 1 and looking like the team to beat in the tournament. Except the tournament never came. “It’s definitely a heartbreak feeling, knowing that we clawed our way to the top that year,” David McCormack said Sunday. “Now this feels like we’re avenging that year.”
Also, it has been a trying year for Self, who lost his father Bill Sr. in January. Self had rushed home to be with his father and was planning on missing the game at Oklahoma on a Tuesday night. “They pay you to do a job. You need to coach the team,” his father told him.
“I remember him telling the doctor — this is on Monday in front of me — `I can’t do this. It’s too hard, I can’t breathe.” Self said. “The doctor said, `No, Bill, you can hang in there a little longer.’ He said, `for what?’
“Then he said, `Oh yeah, what time’s the game tomorrow?’”
The son went to Oklahoma and the Jayhawks won a tough game by three points. Bill Sr. died three days later. Now Self said he has been talking to his father during quiet times as “we’ve gotten deeper in the tournament and the stakes are a little higher. His absence has actually made it more special.”
But he tells his dad he wishes he were here.
If this is a what a down year is like, every conference would like one.
The ACC was often questioned about losing a step this season. Only one ranked team in Duke, several of the familiar names having troubles. But two of the members will be in New Orleans and the ACC is guaranteed a team in the title game for the fifth time in the past seven tournaments. And maybe a fourth champion. To put that in perspective, in the past nine tournaments including this one, the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC have combined for exactly zero titles.
The most ominous words for any opponent trying to catch Villanova in the final minutes.
“Now at the line for the Wildcats. . . “
Villanova kept out of trouble against Houston by making all 15 free throw attempts. The Wildcats are now at 83 percent for the season, and if that holds up, would beat Harvard’s 82.2 in 1984 as the best ever recorded. Odd thing. In an age where free throw shooting often seems a neglected art, four of the best six high season percentages have come in the past two years.
The rankings might mean something. But not.
Kansas, Villanova and Duke were all in the top nine of the final Associated Poll. North Carolina was down in the also receiving votes section, five spots behind South Dakota State. Guess that makes the No. 8 seed Tar Heels the underdog story of the bunch. Right, Cinderella with six national championships.
The last AP unranked team to go all the way was Kansas with Danny Manning, 34 years ago. The last one before that was Villanova in 1985. These programs seem to always be in the conversation about a Final Four.
Villanova, meet Kevin Ware.
Louisville’s Ware suffered a horrific leg injury on a non-contact play in the 2013 regional final. The next week, the Cardinals rallied around their fallen teammate and won the national championship for him. Justin Moore, Villanova’s second leading scorer and one of the team captains, tore his Achilles in a non-contact injury Saturday. Can the Wildcats do the same?
Is anything missing from this Fab Four?
No West Coast. It has been 25 years since that region saw a champion, and with Gonzaga, Arizona and UCLA making so much noise, this was looking like maybe a breakthrough year. Never mind.
No Big Ten. Just update the number in the annual mystery. How could a conference this good not have a champion in 21 … no, make that 22 years?
No four-alarm fire that the Saint Peter’s story became. Cinderella has finally left the building, booted out by a decidedly unsentimental North Carolina bunch. But not before the Peacocks charmed the world. With the East regional final going last on Sunday, at least Saint Peter’s was in the Final Five.
What’s left are four giants, with auras to enhance and history to make, at the expense of one another. The Caesars Superdome this weekend will be a college basketball Camelot. Something Self said about his Jayhawks: “They have a strong belief that they can accomplish anything.”
They’re going to the right place. In this very, very special Final Four, anything seems possible.