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A Final Four For The Ages

April 4, 2022

Making this space about me more than I usually do for a minute, I must confess that I wasn’t looking forward to this Final Four of the 2022 NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship once it was set. Kansas, Villanova, North Carolina and Duke elicited slight nausea as rich got richer, and each team’s route to New Orleans left a slightly bitter taste. How is that you ask? Four all-time programs in a Final Four with a combined 60 Final Fours and now 18 National Championships among them, with historic matchups everywhere you looked didn’t do it for me, you say with incredulity?

Well, no. Not really. For one, Villanova was going into the Final Four down their second-best player Justin Moore, who had ruptured his Achilles tendon with 30 seconds left in their Elite Eight win over Houston, a team that had vanquished my Arizona Wildcats two nights earlier yet couldn’t hit water form a boat against Villanova, shooting 1-20 from three-point land. I never thought Villanova had a chance against Kansas, and unsurprisingly they never led that game. As for Kansas, they suddenly were the favorite, the last #1 seed remaining (and the only Final Four team I not only correctly picked, but presaged they were being a bit undersold), and while no one would ever accuse me of being a fan of Bill Self, unless you are a Jayhawk fan or have money on them (neither of which applied to me), there isn’t much joy in rooting for Goliath.

North Carolina in some sense was the surprise of the tournament, a #8 seed that was discounted for their rocky 12-6 start to the season and apparent growing pains of first-year coach Hubert Davis. They also got to face the darlings of the tournament, St. Peter’s who was the #15 seed (justifiably, I might add) in their regional, for a berth in the Final Four, a path sure to elicit envy from other top seeds now watching at home. In retrospect, were they under-seeded, and did the Tournament Selection Committee do a poor job setting the East Regional? Quite possibly, for me it’s hard to escape those ideas when the #8 & #15 seeds face off in the Elite Eight. Is that sour grapes? Maybe.

And then there was Duke. The New York Yankees of Modern College Basketball. Of all the reasons for college basketball fans to hate Duke or their coach Mike Krzyzewski, many of which were well expressed but Drew Magary in a column for SF Gate, it was the fact that for all intents and purposes Coach K had a “Floating Goodbye Tour” this season that for me was the most galling. It unnecessarily made this season all about him and his efforts to preserve his fiefdom by pointing the Gran Dedado at his former player and current assistant Jon Scheyer to carry on his “legacy”, despite there being several more qualified inside and outside candidates. So many other schools have moved on from legendary coaches without similar pomp and circumstance; John Wooden didn’t announce he was retiring until 48 hours before his last game as a head coach in the 1976 National Title Game, and one need only go nine (9) miles to Chapel Hill to see how differently the retirements of two legends were handled, as both Dean Smith and Roy Williams waited until after their seasons were over to announce they were leaving. All this despite the fact that his team was as talented as any in College Basketball this season, full of future NBA players including two likely NBA Draft lottery picks come this July in Paolo Banchero and A.J. Griffin, I just feel some of the shine was taken away from his players, and too much of the blame awaited any other result than a National Title.

Krzyzewski’s accomplishments are undeniable, and I have zero doubt that all the winning has as much to do with the “hate” as anything else in the big picture, but Saturday night’s loss to North Carolina, to his most-hated rival in his very last game as a head coach, was delicious, and I make no apologies for feeling that way. But I digress.

Now we have a Title Game for what would be a 10th national title between the two schools, a rematch of their 1957 triple-overtime National Final, and the 34th Anniversary of the 1988 “Danny & The Mircales” Jayhawks squad.  North Carolina is the hottest team in the country, winning 17 of their last 20 games with arguably what has become the best starting five in college basketball. The best backcourt in a tournament usually decided by guard play, Tar Heel guards Caleb Love and Davis take turns playing the hero, while the coolest name in this year’s tournament Leaky Black slows down the opponent’s best players and hits clutch shots when needed. Brady “Manek! At The Disco” and double-double machine Armando Bacot stress opposing defenses on every possession, and will be heavily relied upon again.

Kansas however brings a little bit of everything to the table, from experience, athleticism, size, length to perimeter quickness, will run deeper than North Carolina’s six-man rotation, and can match North Carolina at every position. North Carolina also has to bounce back from what had to be an emotionally draining win over their hated rival, and Bacot will be playing through a right-ankle sprain and has to be less than 100 percent. In the final analysis, I think Kansas outlasts North Carolina in what should be a close, up and down, back and forth, high scoring affair.

Not that it’s the result I am rooting for though; Pardon another biblical reference but North Carolina has more than just a stone and a sling.

From → Basketball, Sports

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