Know how folks sometimes say that CBS rigs the NCAA Tournament to get the Final Four that’s best for TV? Nobody rigged this one. Because here’s what we’ve got:
One regional winner that, as of St. Patrick’s Day, hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in 44 years, and two more based in the Pacific Northwest. Of these three, two are gracing their first Final Four; the third is returning for the first time since 1939, which marked the initial run of this competition. When last Oregon reached the Final Four, the convocation was 3 1/2 decades from being billed as such.
Back then, Oregon wasn’t really Oregon. Phil Knight, the chairman of Nike and among the first boosters of any school to take part in post-regional net-snipping, was 1 year old. Oregon’s team wasn’t known as the Ducks — it was, believe it or not, called the Webfoots — and by the time it got around to winning, it wasn’t that, either. It had been rechristened the Tall Firs by Oregonian sports editor L.H. Gregory.
When someone (actually me) asked Tajuan Porter, smallish star of the 2007 Ducks, if he’d heard of the Tall Firs, he said: “I don’t really know what you’re talking about.” Those Ducks lost in the Elite Eight to Florida, which would win a second consecutive championship. Last year’s Ducks fell in the regional final to Oklahoma. There you have the high-water marks of post-Firs Oregon — until the Ducks were beneficiaries of the annual Kansas, er, quack-up. What Bobby Cox was to baseball — great at finishing first over a regular season, less great at winning a postseason tournament — Bill Self is to college hoops.
The other of the two qualifiers from the Pacific Time Zone — also a Final Four first — is a known unknown. Gonzaga has been to every Big Dance since 1999, but this is the first time the Bulldogs have waltzed into April. That so-far-but-no-farther track record history was one reason it was hard to know what to make of the Zags. Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings had Gonzaga as the nation’s best team entering the tournament. Still, how good do you have to be to rule the West Coast Conference?
Even now, ticket finally punched, the Zags will arrive in Phoenix with a question mark affixed. Did they profit from a West Regional that saw them get away with goaltending against Northwestern — a howler of a non-call that prompted a turning-point technical foul on Wildcats coach Chris Collins — and then survive West Virginia’s slapstick attempts at a tying shot and then see off 11th-seeded Xavier? The answer to all of the above is yes. Will Gonzaga be good enough to handle South Carolina? Unknown.
Not long ago, handling South Carolina was no big deal. On Feb. 7, the Gamecocks managed 16 points in the first half against Alabama. (The wretched game would go four overtimes, South Carolina losing.) More losses followed. The Gamecocks entered the NCAA Tournament, their first since 2004, coming off six defeats in nine games. They seemed an object lesson of what not to be in March — a team that peaked in November.
They trailed Marquette at the half in Round One and won by 20. They trailed Duke at the half in Round Two and won by scoring 65 second-half points, more than they’d managed in 10 full games. They beat Baylor in the Sweet 16 by 20. They trailed Florida by seven at the half in the East final and won by seven. Their path to the Final Four has surely been the toughest and they’re the lowest seed standing, and here they are, steamrolling all comers.
South Carolina will face Gonzaga in Saturday’s first semifinal, and it won’t be pretty. KenPom rates the Zags No. 1 in defensive efficiency; the Gamecocks are No. 2. First team to 50 — or maybe 40 — wins.
It’ll be Oregon against North Carolina in the later semi, and if you’re wondering how a Final Four look-ahead could go 760 words without mentioning the team that’s apt to win it … well, the Tar Heels need no introduction. This will be their 20th Final Four. That’s a record. It’s also 16 more than the other three qualifiers combined. History alone never won a national championship, but history is never a bad thing to have.
We saw that Sunday in Memphis. Kentucky’s Malik Monk tied the careening South final with 7.2 seconds remaining. North Carolina did as it has been coached to do — it pushed the ball upcourt and found an open shot for Luke Maye, the kind of shot that mightn’t have been forthcoming had Roy Williams called timeout and given the Wildcats time to ready their defense. In the biggest moment of their season, the Heels’ schooling and seasoning showed.
It wasn’t just that these players had been in such a situation before; they’d been in such a situation in an NCAA tournament. They knew from last year’s epic finish in Houston — Marcus Paige’s jackknifing 3-pointer being trumped at the buzzer by Kris Jenkins’ title-winner — that one heroic shot doesn’t mean anything has been decided. You keep playing. You keep pushing. And sometimes you get the last shot and you drain, as Ol’ Roy would say, the dadgum thing.
There comes a moment in nearly every NCAA tournament when we say, “North Carolina should win this thing.” As we know, North Carolina doesn’t always comply. But it’s hard to view this Final Four as anything but the Tar Heels and their mystery guests, and it’s hard not to see Ol’ Roy’s team winning.