Duke saves day for NCAA, CBS
Think they’re cheering on the campuses at Duke, West Virginia, Butler and Michigan State? That’s nothing compared with the celebration at the NCAA’s headquarters in Indianapolis.
The NCAA desperately needed Duke to win Sunday and lend some glamour to an otherwise ho-hum Final Four field.
No team moves the television ratings needle like the Blue Devils, and the NCAA never has needed that needle moved more than now, as it enters negotiations for a new long-term contract that is vital to the financial well-being of its membership.
Conspiracy theorists might even argue that the NCAA selection committee handed the Blue Devils an easier region than they deserved—a staggering No. 2 seed (Villanova), an upstart No. 3 (Baylor) and a hobbled No. 4 (Purdue)—to grease their bracket.
And they took advantage, winning four games by an average of 16 points to become the only No. 1 seed in the Final Four, joining a No. 2 (West Virginia) and two No. 5s (Butler and Michigan State).
Although the quartet features several appealing stories, this Final Four might be best remembered for which teams, players and fans weren’t there:
-- No Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse, Ohio State, Villanova or Kansas State.
For the first time since 2000, the Final Four includes two teams seeded lower than No. 4.
-- No John Wall, Evan Turner, DeMarcus Cousins, Wes Johnson, Cole Aldrich or Greg Monroe.
For the first time in who-knows-how-long, there won’t be an NBA lottery pick on the floor. The top remaining prospect, Duke freshman forward Mason Plumlee, is at least a year away from leaving school.
-- No CBS cutaways to Kentucky uber-fan Ashley Judd.
Instead, we will see plenty of Michigan State alum Magic Johnson, with a hefty dose of West Virginia legend Jerry West and possibly “Hoosiers” actors Gene Hackman and Maris Valainis, who played Hickory High star Jimmy Chitwood.
(In case you hadn’t heard it mentioned 157 times over the past fortnight, the championship game in “Hoosiers” was filmed at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse.)
What else will we read, hear and see—both on the court and off—over the next eight days? Here’s a Final Four primer:
Butler’s home cooking
Playing 15 minutes from their campus, the Bulldogs are the warm-and-fuzzy story of the week. But don’t be misled by their conference (Horizon) or the “mid-major” tag. They were No. 11 in the Associated Press preseason poll, have a future first-round pick in forward Gordon Hayward and own a 24-game winning streak.
Michigan State’s mulligan
One year after losing to North Carolina in the championship game, the Spartans get another chance. But they will have do it without star point guard Kalin Lucas, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the Sweet 16. After winning tournament games by one, two and three points, how much good fortune do the Spartans have left?
West Virginia’s return
Led by coach (and alum) Bob Huggins, the Mountaineers are making their first Final Four appearance since 1959, when they lost to Cal in the championship despite 28 points by West. For Huggins, it’s his first Final Four since he guided Cincinnati and Nick Van Exel in 1992.
After a five-year absence, which included a string of tournament losses to lower-seeded teams, the Blue Devils are on the Final Four stage again. They are smart and skilled and possess a guard, Nolan Smith, who can create his own points when the offense stagnates. Smith is the son of the late Louisville player Derek Smith, whose Cardinals won the 1980 NCAA title … in Indianapolis.
-- Best player: West Virginia’s Da’Sean Butler. With multiple 30-point games during the regular season—and a 28-pointer to dispatch Missouri in the second round—the versatile Butler is more capable of carrying his team than any other player in the field.
-- Best coach: Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. Yes, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is a Hall of Famer with a gold medal, but Izzo is the best tournament coach in the country, with six Final Fours in the past 12 years and three in the past six.
-- Best bet: As the only No. 1 seed—and being Duke—the Blue Devils are a slight favorite. But they are just as likely to get KO’d in the semifinals as they are to win the championship. One of the wildest tournaments ever comes to a fitting conclusion with a wide-open Final Four.