No more conventional arenas. No more cuddly 11 seeds… well, at least not this time. No more narratives about how Kentucky’s one-and-dones had failed.
It’s time to set up the Final Four in short-term and long-term historical contexts.
These are the 10 Final Four facts that will shape the coming weekend’s action in Arlington, Tex.
10 – CONNECTICUT: NOT THE SAME AS 2011 IN SOME WAYS, BUT SIMILAR ENOUGH TO STAND OUT
The Huskies didn’t go through a five-day, five-win Big East Tournament to catapult themselves into a high seed and the national title conversation this season. Connecticut was manhandled by Louisville in the final of the American Athletic Conference Tournament. The Huskies were a 3 seed in 2011, a 7 seed this year. Yet, one fact knits together the Kemba Walker Huskies of 2011 and the Shabazz Napier Huskies of 2014: In both seasons, UConn was not one of the top three seeds in its conference tournament. This underscores the off-the-radar nature of this team’s progression in March.
Remember this, too: Connecticut trailed Saint Joseph’s by three points in the final minute of regulation in the round of 64, and needed a putback bucket and foul shot by Amida Brimah — a freshman averaging just over 4 points per game — to get into overtime and escape the 10th-seeded Hawks. The Huskies haven’t played a bad game ever since, and here they are.
Like N.C. State escaping Pepperdine in its first game during the 1983 NCAA Tournament; Arizona getting out of jail against South Alabama in the first round of the 1997 tournament; Florida avoiding disaster against Butler (“The Mike Miller Shot”) in the first round of the 2000 Dance; and other famous instances throughout the years, Connecticut got through a rough first game and then became a transformed team. That’s the stuff Final Four runs are (sometimes) made of.
9 – WISCONSIN IS THE LEAST CREDENTIALED PROGRAM IN THIS FINAL FOUR… WHICH IS SAYING SOMETHING
The Badgers own a national title (1941). They’re making their third Final Four appearance. They’ve never finished lower than fourth place in any Big Ten regular season since Bo Ryan became head coach (starting with the 2001-2002 campaign).
The other three programs at this Final Four have more Final Four appearances and national championships.
This is a high-legacy Final Four, even though it’s also a Final Four that’s low on individual superstar sex appeal.
8 – FLORIDA OR CONNECTICUT WILL BE PLAYING FOR A PIECE OF HISTORY ON MONDAY, APRIL 7
The nature of the bracket means that either Florida or Connecticut will contest the national title next Monday night. If Florida wins, it will become one of nine programs with at least three national titles. If Connecticut wins, it will become one of six programs with at least four national crowns. Neither program had won a national title before 1999, so the winner of Gators-Huskies will have a chance to affirm its identity as a college basketball boy-king, a young member of the sport’s royal family. Connecticut’s place in the sport is more established, given its ownership of three titles. Florida is trying to break from a group of schools with two titles and reach that more exclusive club with three (UConn, plus Kansas and last year’s champion, Louisville).
7 – KENTUCKY, CALIPARI, APRIL.
A lot more will be said about how dramatically and abruptly John Calipari has changed the narrative and the identity of this season’s Kentucky team. It’s hard to wrap the mind around the enormity of Cal’s accomplishment over the past two weeks. A basic fact begins (but only begins) to tell this story:
Calipari, in four NCAA tournament appearances at Kentucky, has failed to make the Final Four only once. On that occasion, the Wildcats lost a very close East Regional final to one of the stronger No. 2 seeds in recent memory, a West Virginia team that frankly should have been a No. 1 seed in the South Region (instead of Duke) in 2010.
Has there been a better March coach than John Calipari over the past four years?
The answer is a simple one: No.
That’s why Kentucky is playing big-dome basketball in the month of April once again.
6 – IF JOHN CALIPARI IS THE BEST MARCH COACH OVER THE PAST FOUR YEARS, BILLY DONOVAN COULD MAKE A CASE FOR SECOND
The Final Four is the standard by which coaches are judged, so to be honest, Billy Donovan’s mentor and former coach, Rick Pitino, is probably second to Calipari over the past window of four seasons (not five or three, but four in particular — if you extended the window to five and included 2010, Brad Stevens of Butler might become the better answer).
Yet, the fact remains that over the past four years, only one coach has made the Elite Eight or better in each season while also snagging at least one Final Four appearance. That’s Donovan, not Cal. It’s Billy D, not Pitino. The SEC has two programs that transcend the conference in much the same way that Calipari’s Memphis teams transcended Conference USA. It’s a testament to Calipari’s and Donovan’s coaching chops that Kentucky and Florida are where they are today.
5 – THIS IS THE MOST FRUITFUL PERIOD OF BO RYAN’S TENURE AT WISCONSIN… AND THAT WAS TRUE BEFORE WISCONSIN’S WIN OVER ARIZONA
The Wisconsin Badgers did crash out of last year’s tournament in the round of 64 against Ole Miss. They did lose as a 4 seed to eighth-seeded Butler in the 2011 Sweet 16. Yet, even before Wisconsin won the West Regional final on Saturday against Arizona, this had already become the best March run for the Badgers under Bo Ryan.
Wisconsin made a Sweet 16 appearance in 2003 and then an Elite Eight showing in 2005. The Badgers also reached the Sweet 16 in 2008. What do those various details mean, though? For all of this program’s periodic journeys to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament over time, it is only now that the Badgers have found a greater measure of consistency.
Even before the win over Arizona, Wisconsin had made three Sweet 16s in a span of four seasons. Ryan had not been able to pull off that feat at any prior point in his tenure at UW. This is a program in the prime of its existence; a Final Four appearance will only magnify such a larger truth.
4 – KEVIN OLLIE STANDS ON RARE GROUND
Jim Calhoun’s successor at Connecticut has reached the Final Four in his second season on the job, and in his first NCAA tournament appearance. Sure, he had two home games in the East Regional at Madison Square Garden, but he still had to coach his rear end off, and his team still had to beat Tom Izzo, Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, and the rest of the Michigan State Spartans in a big-boy regional final. Ollie was not outmaneuvered by Izzo in a high-stakes game. He gives every indication that he’s ready for the big stage this weekend… and for a long, prosperous career in Storrs, Conn.
3 – THE SEC HAS THE MOST TEAMS AT THE 2014 FINAL FOUR, MORE THAN THE BIG TEN AND TWO MORE THAN THE BIG 12
Whenever you need a reminder about the fragile, unpredictable nature of March basketball in comparison to the regular season, just keep looking at that fact. The Big 12 was — if not the best league in college basketball — the most consistent conference during the regular season. Oklahoma State and Kansas played an 8-versus-1 quarterfinal in the Big 12 Tournament, a Sweet 16-level game that had NBA talent jumping out of the building. Kentucky lost to South Carolina and got swept by Arkansas while going 0-3 against Florida and snatching only one quality win, against Louisville.
This Kentucky team making its way to North Texas is not the Kentucky team that played over the previous four months. This happens in college basketball. It will happen again.
Sports: the ultimate in reality television, forever and ever.
2 – A 7 SEED AND AN 8 SEED ARE IN THE SAME FINAL FOUR FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HISTORY
The enduring magic of the NCAA tournament is expressed in this simple statement: You know surprises will emerge, but you don’t know where they’ll emerge. The reality of bracket chaos is an almost annual occurrence (in 2008, of course, all four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four, the only time that’s happened since the tournament began to be seeded in 1979), but the source of said chaos is the true mystery. That’s where the tournament throws its true curveball in most years.
In 2000, a pair of No. 8 seeds made the Final Four (North Carolina and Wisconsin). In 2011, an 8 (Butler) and an 11 (VCU) crashed the party. Some people might have thought that Kentucky was ready to make a darkhorse run from its spot in the bracket, but how many people had UConn beating both Iowa State and Michigan State in New York? The Georges Niang injury certainly made a difference in Connecticut-Iowa State, but the Huskies took advantage of that fact. Conversely, neither Louisville nor Michigan could (sufficiently) exploit Kentucky’s loss of Willie Cauley-Stein. That detail makes Big Blue’s appearance in Arlington much more remarkable… and impressive.
All in all, this Final Four has a lot of 2000 and a lot of 2011 mixed in. Those are the two most immediate historical comparisons; we’ll see how the narrative develops and changes on National Semifinal Saturday.
1 – IF THERE ARE PARALLELS BETWEEN 2011 AND 2014 CONNECTICUT, THERE ARE PARALLELS BETWEEN 2011 AND 2014 KENTUCKY AS WELL
The 2011 Kentucky team had to go through the top two seeds in its region, beating the 1 seed before the Elite Eight and then taking down the 2 seed in the regional final. The 2014 Wildcats have done the same thing.
Whereas Florida played only one team seeded higher than ninth in this tournament (the Gators have had remarkable luck in recent years in terms of tournament seeds, a partial reason for their March consistency), Kentucky went through the toughest path, beating three of the teams from last season’s Final Four. That’s something the 2011 team did not achieve. It’s also a reason why this year’s Kentucky crew is poised to win its national semifinal, something the 2011 team failed to do.