This SHOULD be a fun Final Four for the simple reason that the games should be close to the finish, regardless of who wins on Saturday. There’s no one nearly as good as North Carolina was a year ago and our long Saturday drought should come to an end.
Think about it. Semifinal Saturday is always billed as one of the best days in sports. Not so much the last five seasons. In 2004, both semis were decided in the final seconds: Georgia Tech’s Will Bynum hitting a buzzer-beater to beat Oklahoma State and Connecticut coming from behind the last three minutes to catch Duke.
Since then, there have been ten Saturday games played and not one of them was decided in the final seconds. Last year’s Connecticut-Michigan State game had the emotional element of the Spartans playing ‘for,’ Detroit but the game itself wasn’t that dramatic. Carolina-Villanova was over at halftime as was the title game two nights later. In 2008 the championship game between Kansas and Memphis was great but the Saturday games were both over before the last two minutes.
I just can’t see any of these four teams either collapsing or running away. For one thing, none of them play that style of basketball. Duke-West Virginia should be a donnybrook inside. Both teams play very good half-court defense, rebound like crazy and are inconsistent on offense. Butler and Michigan State have both played superbly to get this far and believe—correctly—that they are as capable of winning the title as anyone.
There are also great story lines, the most obvious being Butler, The Little School That Did, coming home to Indy to play The Final Four. For the record, Butler’s campus—I’m told—is the third closest to a Final Four site. Apparently Louisville in 1958 was a two-mile drive from Freedom Hall and UCLA traveled about three miles cross-town in 1967 and 1972 to the L.A. Sports Arena. (For some reason I had it in my mind that they played in Pauley Pavilion in ’67 but Matt Bonesteel at The Post says not so and since my memory isn’t what it used to be, I’m taking his word).
Butler’s not George Mason. For one thing, the Bulldogs had a tournament pedigree coming in—two recent Sweet 16s—and were a No. 5 seed. Mason was a No. 11 seed and had never won an NCAA Tournament game. But Butler didn’t back in by any means. It beat the top two seeds in the West, Syracuse and Kansas State and made big plays at the end in both games after falling behind. Frequently when an underdog loses the lead after having it for a while it spits the bit. That didn’t happen.
Michigan State’s two victories this weekend are a tribute to just how tough-minded the kids Tom Izzo recruits are year in and year out. Losing your point guard is hard enough but when he’s your best player—as Kalin Lucas was—no one would blame you if you mailed in the rest of the tournament. The Spartans not only won twice but if you watched them there’s no reason to believe they can’t win twice more. Izzo is just flat out good—which isn’t exactly going out on a limb since he’s now been to six Final Fours in 12 years and is going for a second national championship. He’s also a good guy, universally respected by his peers. You will never hear any whispers about Izzo or his program.
Bob Huggins has heard more than whispers through the years. He became kind of a national whipping boy because of his graduation rate at Cincinnati and because his players found off-court trouble often, including most famously a player pulling a ‘Blazing Saddles,’ move and taking a swing at a police horse. There were health issues too—drinking problems, a serious heart attack—and finally a battle with the school president he couldn’t win.
No one—NO ONE—ever said Huggins couldn’t coach and if they did they were flat out wrong. That’s why there wasn’t any doubt that West Virginia would be good when he came home to his alma mater three years ago. This is a classic Huggins team: it plays, “ugly,”—to quote assistant coach Billy Hahn—but it will guard you getting off the bus and rebound all day and all night. It is also mentally tough, a lot like its coach. Huggins was unhappy with the 23 turnovers the Mountaineers committed against Washington. I haven’t double-checked but I think the number was THREE in the Kentucky game? And that’s against a team that can really attack on defense. Joe Mazzulla’s performance, coming in for Truck Bryant at point guard, was phenomenal. Plus, he’s a smart, funny kid, the kind you want to root for to do well.
I think West Virginia’s the best team left. Its game with Duke, as I said, will probably be a 65-61 type of game. Let me pause here though to give some credit to Mike Krzyzewski for getting this group to The Final Four. I’ve said all year—and still believe—this isn’t even close to one of his best teams. The so-called Big Three—Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith—are all nice players but wildly inconsistent shooters. Singler was zero-for-10 from the field yesterday. Scheyer had been in a slump until the second half of the Purdue game. Smith was excellent yesterday but has bouts when he can turn the ball over three times in four possessions.
But Duke’s good. It plays great defense and the four big guys it plays can’t throw the ball in the ocean but they get rebounds and make it tough to get inside.
Of course there will be the ritual whining about Duke’s draw and the charge that Brian Zoubek took with Duke down two late in the game. Yup, the Krzyzewski-haters (and they are a legion) will say he’s now won 793 games thanks to the officials. (I think they concede the 73 wins at Army may have been legit). Fine. If that makes you feel better, go ahead and think it. And if saying Krzyzewski’s one hell of a coach makes me a ‘Duke guy,’ that’s fine too. Somehow thinking Izzo is great doesn’t make me a ‘Michigan State guy,’ but that’s life.
Krzyzewski has NOT recruited as well the last few years as in past years. But he’s in his 11th Final Four—as many now as Dean Smith; one less than John Wooden. It’s tough to shoot that number down.
One other note on Baylor Coach Scott Drew who has done amazing work rebuilding that program after the Patrick Dennehy tragedy and the Dave Bliss debacle seven years ago. I’m sorry, I know this will upset some people but I have to say something about his comment yesterday that a postgame prayer is, “the right way to do things.”
Look, if Drew and his team want to pray before, during or after games, that is absolutely their right. But praying is neither right nor wrong on a universal level. For some people it is the right thing to do; for others it isn’t. I remember when I was working on ‘A Civil War,’ and Charlie Weatherbie was Navy’s coach. Weatherbie believed in praying as a team all day every day. On game day he led a prayer before pre-game breakfast; before the coach’s morning meeting; before the team met at the hotel; in the locker room before the game; on the field after the game; in the locker room right after that.
Once I got to know some of the players I asked them how they felt about all the prayers. Some thought it was great. Some shrugged it off. Some didn’t like it at all. “God has better things to do,” was a frequent comment. And some said this: “If coach thinks it will help us win, I’m all for it.”
Like I said, if Scott Drew and his players choose to pray on the court after a game, that is absolutely their choice. But it isn’t the right way or the wrong way to do things. It is just their way—period
Last thing: I see where Norman Chad is taking shots at me again in his stale Washington Post column. Apparently I can’t write and he can. Let me just say this: If I ever end up commenting on poker on TV for a living, don’t ask any questions, just shoot me.