Wednesday, April 01, 2009

After Boring Run-Up, Final Four Could Leave Lasting Mark

By John Feinstein
The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 31, 2009; 1:51 PM

North Carolina Tar Heels coach Roy Williams wears a cap as he stands next to game high scorer Ty Lawson after they defeated the Oklahoma Sooners during their NCAA men's South Regional finals basketball game in Memphis, Tennessee, March 29, 2009. (Reuters)

Almost five months after the college basketball season began -- and with one weekend to go -- it appears that everything has come full circle.

By the time the first TV timeout was called on Nov. 11, the experts were ceding the national championship to North Carolina. That is, unless Connecticut could find a way to stop the Tar Heels in the Final Four.

North Carolina dealt with some injuries -- Tyler Hansbrough early and Ty Lawson late -- and a couple of upsets, notably to Boston College at home on Jan. 4. Connecticut couldn't handle Pittsburgh during the regular season and lost an epic six-overtime game to Syracuse in the Big East tournament.

But now the dust has cleared and the carnival is setting up for the week in Detroit, and the consensus still holds that only the Huskies have a reasonable chance to deny the Tar Heels the national title. And even though the best story lines right now are those provided by Michigan State and Villanova, the best teams, in all likelihood, are the ones coached by Roy Williams and Jim Calhoun.

Michigan State, which plays Connecticut in the first game on Saturday night, will certainly be the sentimental favorite for most fans who don't have some kind of attachment to the other three teams. The Spartans will be playing 90 miles from their campus in East Lansing, Mich., but what makes their story compelling is all the heartache the city of Detroit has been through economically in the past year.

Throughout that time, much has been made of the fact that even the local sports teams have let Michiganders down. The Lions became the first team in NFL history to go 0-16. The Tigers, after winning a pennant in 2006, finished fifth in the AL Central last season. The Pistons have become mediocre. Even Michigan football had a shockingly bad season. Only the Red Wings have continued to win championships and compete at a consistently high level.

Now the city and the state (outside of Michigan fans, no doubt) can revel in the Spartans' success. And even though Coach Tom Izzo has been down this road before -- this is his fifth Final Four in 11 years, and Michigan State won it all in 2000 -- he's never been there under circumstances quite like these.

Michigan State Spartans coach Tom Izzo celebrates while his team plays the Louisville Cardinals during the second half of their NCAA men's Midwest Regional finals basketball game in Indianapolis, Indiana, March 29, 2009. (Reuters)

"I just hope we've given people something they can smile about," he said after his team stunned top-seeded Louisville, 64-52, in the Midwest Region final on Sunday. "We all know how tough these last few months have been."

Villanova is also a good story, but for reasons not nearly as dramatic. The Wildcats haven't been to a Final Four since their "perfect game" championship victory over Georgetown in 1985. To put that in perspective, consider this: The other three programs still standing have been to 17 Final Fours since then (North Carolina has been to nine, Michigan State five and Connecticut three) and won five national championships.

However, the simple fact going into the final weekend is this: North Carolina and Connecticut haven't been in serious danger yet. The biggest challenge for Calhoun has been answering questions about what appear to be serious recruiting improprieties involving the very troubled Nate Miles. The good news in that for Connecticut is that this run won't be jeopardized, as Miles never played a game in a Huskies uniform. What is in jeopardy is Calhoun's legacy. He's already in the Hall of Fame, but a black mark like this will follow him into retirement if the allegations are confirmed by the NCAA, or even worse, if the NCAA goes in and finds there's more to this than just Miles.

There are some who think Calhoun may decide to step down as early as next week if the Huskies cut down the nets on Monday night. Calhoun is almost 67 and has had two bouts with cancer. A win Monday night would give him three national titles, tying him with Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski behind only John Wooden's 10 and Adolph Rupp's four. He would walk away a hero in the eyes of the Connecticut fans because -- like all fans -- they will fall back on the "everybody does it" excuse used by supporters of successful coaches who get into trouble.

Calhoun is so intense he can literally put himself in the hospital getting wound up about games. It might very well be that his doctors and the people around him insist he hang it up, especially if he wins another title.

The other three coaches aren't going anywhere soon. Villanova's Jay Wright is the kid in the group at 47 and just coming into his own as a coaching star. Izzo already is a star but is only 54 and has a lot of coaching left to do.

Williams is starting to put together numbers that may eventually challenge his mentor, Dean Smith, and their great rival, Krzyzewski. Williams has now been to seven Final Fours -- four at Kansas, three at North Carolina -- which puts him three shy of Krzyzewski and four away from Smith. A second national title would match Smith and put him one away from Krzyzewski. He's 58 -- more than three years younger than Krzyzewski -- and appears to have a recruiting pipeline in place that will ensure that the Tar Heels remain national contenders every year for a long time to come -- even without Hansbrough, who will finally graduate this spring.

It feels as if Hansbrough started playing college basketball in the 1980s because he was so good from Day One. In a strange way, he is a very under-appreciated player. Much has been made of the fact that he probably will not be an NBA superstar like some of the one-and-done players who have drifted through the college game during his tenure. People contend he gets all the calls -- get over it: great players get calls, folks -- and that white reporters have built him up to be better than he is.

Oh please. Can't we all just appreciate a truly great college player, one who has a remarkable work ethic that makes him better than what his athletic skills alone might make him. Who would you rather watch, Hansbrough or a kid like Josh McRoberts, who was more touted than Hansbrough when he arrived at Duke in 2005 and spent two years whining and not guarding anybody before going on to mediocrity in the NBA? There are plenty of other examples, but McRoberts fits best because the two were recruited by arch rivals at the same time.

University of Connecticut head basketball coach Jim Calhoun talks to reporters after a practice in Storrs, Conn., Monday, March 30, 2009. (AP)

Saturday's games should be more like the thriller between Villanova and Pittsburgh in the East Region final than the rest of the tournament -- and they better be. History proves that a great Final Four can wipe away the bad taste of an otherwise dull tournament, and this year's Final Four needs to do that. There have now been 61 games played, and no more than five were worth watching until the finish. After 14 of the top-seeded 16 teams advanced through the first weekend, the talking heads predicted a great second weekend because so many good teams had advanced.

Wrong. Eight of the 12 games in the second weekend were decided by double digits -- including Louisville's 39-point annihilation of Arizona in the Midwest Region semifinals-- and only Villanova-Pitt came down to the final seconds. Lots of yawns, especially with the late-night starts on Thursday and Friday. The "student-athletes" from Duke and Villanova tipped off at 10:08 p.m. in Boston -- on a school night no less.

That's another discussion for another day. The NCAA tournament is going more and more in the direction Major League Baseball went years ago, with late-night starts that might be good for TV in the short term but are bad for the growth of the sport in the long term.

The national championship game will tip off at 9:22 p.m. (if we're lucky) on Monday night. No one will be surprised by a North Carolina-Connecticut final: It's what most people have been expecting since November. But if either Michigan State or Villanova (or both) have a little magic left in their satchels, they can make this weekend less predictable and a lot more fun for most of us to watch. That in spite of the fact that it will be close to midnight on Monday by the time they make the victorious players stand on the podium -- they look like hostages up there -- for the playing of "One Shining Moment." Cue the music. Cue the tears. And if this weekend is like most of what we've seen the last two, cue the NoDoz.

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