Saturday’s second semifinal between Kentucky and Wisconsin is fascinating because of its chess-match dimensions. The Final Four’s first semifinal — being a rematch of a regular season meeting — is quite compelling in its own right, but for a very different set of reasons.
Kentucky — built by Adolph Rupp, maintained by Joe B. Hall, lifted to great heights by Rick Pitino, sustained by Tubby Smith, and made even better by John Calipari — has always been a part of college basketball’s championship landscape since the NCAA tournament began. Kentucky joins North Carolina and Kansas as one of the three supreme “old-money” programs in college basketball.
UCLA and Duke — brilliantly overwhelming in 20-year stretches but not always a factor since 1939 — are not what one would view as rebellious upstarts or new-age scene-stealers. Yet, they don’t own as much high-quality longevity; in the 1940s and especially the 1950s, the Kentucky-Carolina-Kansas trio accumulated accomplishments while Duke and UCLA had yet to do much of anything. Kentucky is one of a select few schools in college basketball that has stayed at or near the mountaintop for a very long time. Though not owning as many national titles as UCLA, Kentucky’s consistent success — magnified by its March magician, Mr. Calipari — gives Big Blue Nation every right to think that it has the best college basketball program in the country.
Contrast this with the identities of Connecticut and especially Florida, the teams that will start the Final Four on Saturday evening in Jerry Jones’s pleasure palace.
If Duke and UCLA inhabit an identity that lies between the old-money designation and the nouveau-riche label (maybe “middle-aged or baby boomer money”), the same cannot be said of Connecticut and Florida. These two programs are the young, hotshot entrepreneurs of college basketball. They have packed their portfolios with accomplishments in comparatively short spans of time.
Let’s say this about Connecticut: The Huskies did actually perform well before Jim Calhoun came around. UConn made the NCAA tournament as a member of the Yankee Conference — six times in the 1950s and five in the 1960s. UConn even played Duke in a regional final before the memorable 1990 encounter won by the Blue Devils on a Christian Laettner buzzer-beater. Indeed, the Huskies lost to coach Vic Bubas’s best Duke team in the 1964 Elite Eight, falling one stop short of the Final Four.
Yet, the larger point remains plain: Connecticut basketball had not made very much of a dent in the history books — or the record books — when Jim Calhoun made his way to Storrs in the mid-1980s. The Huskies were entirely obscured by the rest of a nascent Big East, one in which Syracuse, Georgetown, St. John’s, and Villanova called the shots, all while a few other teams found moments of glory.
One of these teams was Providence, which crashed the Final Four party in 1987. The Friars’ star point guard and clutch playmaker was a man named Billy Donovan. He was probably too busy to notice or too focused on his own priorities to care (or both), but if Donovan surveyed the rest of the action at the 1987 NCAA Tournament, he might have noticed that one SEC school made its first — yes, its first — appearance in the Big Dance.
That’s right: Florida did not become a part of March Madness until 1987, with Norm Sloan — winner of the 1974 national title at North Carolina State — coaching the Gators into the Sweet 16.
In the context of the present day, it seems natural that Florida — given its access and proximity to top talent — would thrive as a program. Yet, from a larger historical vantage point, basketball was even more of an afterthought in Gainesville than in other SEC locales.
LSU fielded formidable teams under Dale Brown. Auburn and Alabama were extremely competitive in the 1980s under Sonny Smith and Wimp Sanderson. Tennessee is one of the more accomplished programs to have never made a Final Four. Georgia became a factor in the early 1980s under Hugh Durham. Florida lagged behind all these schools for quite some time. When a 1994 Final Four appearance — made possible by an unlikely escape against Connecticut, of all teams — did not lead to sustained success, Florida greeted the new century with a slate almost entirely bereft of significant basketball achievements.
Only under Donovan have the Gators become one of college basketball’s toughest customers. What Jim Calhoun forged in New England is what Donovan is in the process of doing in the Sunshine State. What makes Saturday’s semifinal so captivating, then, is that these two schools are waging what can genuinely be termed an historical turf battle, a mighty struggle for a larger piece of college basketball immortality.
Including this weekend’s bash in North Texas, Connecticut and Florida have combined to make 10 Final Fours — just more than half of North Carolina’s total of 18, which is tops on the all-time list. (Kentucky sits at 16. The Wildcats are closing in on second-place UCLA, which has 17, a figure which does not include a vacated appearance in 1980.) Compared to old-money powers, the Huskies and Gators still have catching up to do. Yet, their ability to rocket up the charts in college basketball remains nothing short of breathtaking.
What’s so striking about the rapid ascendancies of UConn and Florida is that they’ve been forged in the past 15 years. The Huskies and Gators have reached nine Final Fours and won five national championships since 1999. For the sake of comparison, Duke has won two national titles in that same length of time, as has North Carolina. No other programs have won more than a single national crown.
The reality is rich and truly astonishing: If one was to make a Final Four of the most successful college basketball programs since 1999, Connecticut and Florida would quite legitimately join Duke and North Carolina for the “national semifinals.” The only prolonged debate would pit Florida against Michigan State for the fourth spot; reasonable minds can (and probably would) disagree, but the Gators would certainly have a reasonable case to make.
Connecticut and Florida have come so far under Calhoun and Donovan — with Kevin Ollie now carrying the baton for the Huskies — that they are competing for something much more than a present-moment prize for two groups of young men that want their own place in history. The Huskies and Gators will be locked in combat at a great height, as both schools try to take one step closer to the sport’s Mount Olympus.
The facts are simple yet staggering, plain yet powerful:
If Connecticut wins the national title this weekend, it will become one of only six schools to win at least four.
If Florida cuts down the nets on Monday night, it will become one of only nine schools to win at least three.
These programs do not exist on the fringes of their sport’s record books. They have made their way to the center of the discussion and can become an even deeper part of the story of college basketball.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are college basketball programs. Yet, it’s taken a lot more than 15 years for most programs to achieve what Connecticut and Florida have transferred into their respective trophy cases since 1999.
The money’s not old; it doesn’t flow from a period of multi- generational influence and stature in college basketball. Yet, UConn and Florida find themselves ready to compete in front of 80,000 fans in a venue whose excesses call the Roman Empire to mind.
Huskies-Gators will begin the bread-and-circus hoops festival at the Final Four, but these two programs will take the court at AT&T Stadium with some very high stakes on the line. It won’t be fun and games for two rosters and coaching staffs when the ball is tipped. There’s history to be made in Saturday’s first national semifinal.