For the first time in years, the Final Four of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament consists entirely of perennial programs.
There have been no VCUs or George Masons this year. Every double-digit seed has been denied entrance to the Elite Eight and Final Four. Butler and Richmond didn’t even bother coming to the dance. There hasn’t been a mid-major coach who’s become the hottest commodity on the market due to a team’s tournament success, à la Shaka Smart of VCU and Brad Stevens of Butler.
In the last few years, there has been a small school that no one outside its home state knows of, who goes against the odds and flips the whole tournament on its head. This phenomenon is known as a “Cinderella story.”
But it hasn’t been the case this year. The added total of seeding of this year’s Final Four is only nine, compared to last year’s 26. It’s been a good year for the big dogs, and a bad year for those who love when the giants fall.
To be fair, this tournament hasn’t been completely devoid of upsets; the second round featured two major upsets: Norfolk State upending Missouri, becoming the fifth 15 seed to ever beat a two seed, and Lehigh beating Duke just hours later to be the sixth. However, neither made it past the second round.
It’s possible the tournament needs a Cinderella team in order to enliven the atmosphere. There hasn’t been a single buzzer-beater, there have been more games decided by 13-plus points than games decided by one possession, and no mid-major made it past the Sweet 16. Collectively, it has been an unexciting tournament.
Maybe I sound like a bitter bracketeer who loves seeing one seeds fall even more than seeing my bracket stay unblemished, but this has been par for the course this year in college sports — even college football’s Cinderella team, Oklahoma State, was denied a bid to the National Championship Game so another powerhouse program could win in its place.
There might be something about New Orleans and its Mercedes-Benz Superdome that draws in the big names. The 2003 Final Four was a field of powerhouses, most notably Carmelo Anthony and the champion Syracuse Orange. The 2012 BCS National Championship game may have had nearly ten first-round picks in the NFL draft between the two teams, and this year’s Final Four might be a preview showing of a number of lottery picks in the NBA draft as well.
Even though Cinderella missed her carriage’s departure, the remaining games will still be worth watching. The rosters of Louisville, Kentucky, Ohio State and Kansas are filled with All-Americans, Player of the Year Finalists and All-Conference First-Team players.
No. 1 overall seed Kentucky highlights the Final Four and is the favorite to win it all, and it’s with good reason. The Wildcats’ “one-and-done” approach to recruiting is controversial and breeds a lack of team unity (imagine if DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall were still on this team), but there are no such signs of it this year. Freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are likely to be the first two players selected in the 2012 NBA draft, but right now, they’re fueling a very dangerous Kentucky squad and they both make everyone on the floor better.
Standing in the way of Kentucky is in-state rival Louisville. After a stunning loss in the second round last year, Rick Pitino’s Cardinals have been on a warpath, winning the 2012 Big East Tournament and upending teams like Florida and Michigan State en route to New Orleans.
There’s certainly no love lost between John Calipari and Rick Pitino, and it will show on the court Saturday. Louisville gave Kentucky all it could handle earlier in the year before losing 69-62 in Lexington. Calipari lacks a national title in his repertoire, and what success he has had has been nullified due to scandals, vacations and NCAA violations. Meanwhile, Rick Pitino hung up a title banner for Kentucky in 1996, and will be looking to do the same for Louisville. Pitino wants to stamp his ticket into the Hall of Fame, and Calipari wants to show that he can win without a scandal tainting his accomplishments.
Kansas’ rocky start to the year didn’t stop it from going on and earning a two seed, and it’ll face fellow two seed Ohio State in the Final Four. When the teams met back in December, the Buckeyes were without forward Jared Sullinger, and as a result, Kansas forward Thomas Robinson had a feeding frenzy on the stat sheet and led the Jayhawks to a 78-67 victory.
This game is full of star players like Sullinger, Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor and William Buford. Sullinger and Robinson will be assigned to guard one another, which will absolutely be the matchup to watch. Can Sullinger’s physical dominance be able to stop Robinson’s freakish athleticism, or will it be the other way around? This battle between All-Americans could decide the winner.
With only three games left undecided, it’s shaping up to be a wild finish, despite the lack of an underdog. The coaches, players and programs remaining are the best the sport has to offer, and these Final Four matchups will be like watching Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali duke it out. Regardless of which two teams live to play in the championship on Wednesday, we as fans are in for a thrilling conclusion to another classic tournament.