One of the NCAA Tournament’s greatest appeals is that a Cinderella team rises up every March and often makes it all the way to the Final Four.
This year’s Cinderella was Davidson, but the clock struck midnight on the Wildcats last Sunday when they fell 59-57 to Kansas in the Midwest Regional final.
For the first time in tournament history, four No. 1 will battle for the national championship at the Final Four. In addition to Kansas, top seeds North Carolina (East), Memphis (South) and UCLA (West) have all made it through the first four rounds to San Antonio this weekend.
While that may leave the casual fan without a team to root for, none of the four coaches whose teams are still alive is complaining.
For Memphis coach John Calipari, this is a matter of form holding for one of the few times in college basketball.
“There were a lot of people that picked us four at the beginning of the year to be the best four teams, so maybe this year we were just a little bit better than the field,” Calipari said. “There were still eight other teams that were right on our heels but the four of us separated from the field.
“Next year, it may be different. It may be two sixes and a three and a four that are in the Final Four. I just hope we’re a two or three or one of those sixes. But this year was a little different.”
The tournament selection committee is often a target of criticism each March. However, there were few complaints about the teams that got selected to the field of 65 this season. UCLA coach Ben Howland says that all four No. 1 seeds converging on the Alamodome this weekend is a compliment to the committee.
“I would say the committee deserves a lot of credit,” Howland said. “They did a great job seeding the tournament. It’s amazing that this is the first time all four No. 1 seeds have made it this far.”
Kansas coach Bill Self figures that the presence of four No. 1s ensures that all three games of the Final Four could be memorable.
“Certainly, you’ve got four high-level teams,” Self said. “You’ve got four teams that have done it basically since the beginning of November all the way through and have maintained a pretty high level of play. I can’t imagine there being a more exciting scenario going in for college basketball fans.”
While North Carolina coach Roy Williams also thinks the games should be ultra competitive, he is not so sure they will be a thing of beauty because of the defensive prowess of each team. Memphis is first in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency with a 78.6 mark while Kansas is second at 79.7, UCLA is 12th at 85.9 and Williams’ Tar Heels are 40th at 90.7.
“I think this is a Final Four where who knows what the games are going to be like because these teams are so good defensively and play different styles,” Williams said. “It could end up being ugly games because of all the defense but there are going to be four awfully talented teams out there.”
One thing is for certain, though, none of the fourth coaches can play the underdog card this weekend.
“I guess we can be the underdogs since we were the fourth of the four No. 1 seeds,” said Self, the only one of the four coaches making his Final Four debut, said with a laugh. “And Carolina would be the favorites as the overall No. 1 seed.
“But I really think in this situation where there’s not much difference between any of the teams from a performance standpoint. All the teams play differently and take pride in doing different things but certainly you’re going to have four premier teams out there.”
Williams vs. His Past
One doesn’t have to dig deep to find the storyline in the North Carolina-Kansas semifinal on Saturday. Williams will be facing the Jayhawks for the first time since leaving Kansas following the 2003 season, the year it lost to Syracuse in the national championship game, to return to his alma mater.
Williams admits this will be more emotional for him that the average Final Four game.
“If I was ever going to play Kansas again this is the only way I would want it to happen,” Williams said. “In fact, I wish it would happen on Monday night (in the championship game) instead of Saturday.”
Though many Jayhawks fans were angry when Williams bolted for North Carolina, he said he still has deep feelings for Kansas.
“I definitely care,” Williams said. “I gave the school, the basketball program, the state and especially the players 15 years of my heart, body and soul. Some of the greatest memories of my life were at Kansas. I’m never going to lose that. I’m never going to lose the appreciation the people there have for basketball, their passion for basketball.
“I can put it to you this way: In my summer camp we have a lot of little kids running around and they’re instructed on the first day they can wear North Carolina stuff or they can wear Kansas stuff but they can’t wear anybody else’s stuff.
“I’m going to always be a huge Kansas fan. There were some things said or done that hurt at first but time has a way of healing things and I am hopeful it will heal with some people that still may have some bad feelings.”
Self, who replaced Williams, believes Kansas fans have forgiven Williams.
“At the core of Kansas fans, I would think everybody’s very proud of the time he spent here because he gave this place 15 years of excellence,” Self said. “Although I know feelings were hurt initially and all those things, I think five years is enough time for people to let a few things go and that’s certainly been the case.”
Steel City Roots
Pittsburgh is noted as a football town but the Steel City is the tie that binds the two coaches in the UCLA-Memphis semifinal.
Calipari grew up in the Pittsburgh area and was an assistant coach at Pitt under Paul Evans before taking his first head coaching job at Massachusetts. Howland was the head coach at Pitt before leaving for UCLA and his native Southern California four years ago.
“Ben and I have mutual friends back in Pittsburgh,” Calipari said. “Ben did fabulous things at Pitt, which I loved because I love Pittsburgh. I really respected what he did at Pitt and it doesn’t surprise me that he has continued that success at UCLA.
“I know how his teams play. We know the challenge. They’re great defensively. It’s body-to-body, mano-a-mano, you’re going to have some hands on your body, you’re going to drive and there are going to be two hands around your waist. You better be ready to go and play a man’s game because that’s how they play.”
It was that style that Howland used to bring Pitt’s program back to national prominence while also forging a reputation as one of the nation’s up-and-coming coaches, one that started with a successful stint at Northern Arizona.
“The opportunity that they gave me at Pitt to be the coach was really special, to hire some yokel from way out West that nobody back East had ever heard of was actually probably unexpected for the people in Pittsburgh,” Howland said. “And I’m really glad that they gave me the opportunity to come be the coach. It was a great experience to coach in the Big East, which is as good as any conference in the country on a year-in and year-out basis. Had it not been for the opening at UCLA, I would probably still be there, assuming they wanted me.”
Crean Dons the Cream
Tom Crean decided to take a huge step earlier this week when he left Marquette to take over an Indiana program that was rocked late in the season when coach Kelvin Sampson resigned under pressure after the NCAA found he had violated rules regarding phone calls to recruits.
Things didn’t get easier when freshman guard Eric Gordon informed Crean in his second day on the job that he is entering the NBA draft. The day Crean was hired, the university dismissed a pair of starting guards, Armon Bassett and Jamarcus Ellis, from the program.
Crean certainly has been given a fair amount of time to get things straightened out in Bloomington, though, as he signed an eight-year contract.
“It is a challenge? It is probably going to be an even greater challenge that I realize and I’ve thought about it a lot,” Crean said during his introductory news conference. “We have an incredible tradition in a very challenging time. We’re going to build on that tradition and the only way to do that is to go full-bore, and that is what we are going to do. We’re going to deal with this with our eyes wide open.”
Indiana athletic director Rick Greenspan is certain Crean is the right man for the Hoosiers.
“I think to be a success in this state you have to be a good neighbor,” Greenspan told the Indianapolis Star. “And I think what makes a good neighbor is you’re approachable, you’re friendly, you’re available and you’re very passionate about what you’re doing. And from what I’ve seen, Tom is that person.”
Golden Flashes Hire From Within
Kent State, which has built one of the best mid-major programs in the country, decided to stay in-house for its next coach and promoted assistant coach Geno Ford after Jim Christian left for Texas Christian.
Ford spent the past four years as Christian’s top assistant and also played in the Mid-American Conference at Ohio. Despite being just 33, Ford also has head-coaching experience at NAIA Shawnee State and Division III Muskingum.
“There’s a Kent State way, a way we do things that sets us apart and is the reason why we are so successful,” Ford said in his introductory news conference. “We’re about doing things the right way at Kent State. We have won but we haven’t cut corners to do it. We don’t break rules. We don’t with a win-at-all-costs mentality.
“I know the challenge here with continuing to move our program forward and am anxious to tackle it and get moving.”
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.