LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – Whatever happens this weekend in the NCAA Final Four has to almost be anti-climactic, given all the incredible upsets, last-second heroics, and true grit that we've seen so far in the 2019 men's tournament.
It took a lot of unexpected twists and turns, surprises and disappointments, sensational plays and questionable officiating calls to end up with a rather bizarre Final Four that includes only one No. 1 seed (Virginia), one former champion (Michigan State), and two newcomers to the Big Dance (Texas Tech and Auburn).
Lump them together and you might be able to find one NBA first-round draft pick (Michigan State’s Cassius Winston), but that’s about all. One-and-doners are non-existent. But what they share are teamwork, persistence, experience, and good coaching.
Make that exceptional coaching.
Whether you like Auburn’s Bruce Pearl or not, and there’s not much middle ground, you have to admit the guy can coach and motivate. So what that he has the FBI sting operation hanging overhead? On camera, he comes off as a lovable rascal trying to beat the system.
Virginia’s Tony Bennett looks like the sort of guy who wore a pocket-protector when he was in the eighth grade. He’s as vanilla as vanilla gets. No drama, no controversy, no misconduct. You sort of hope that he secretly plays bass in a rock band.
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is that frazzled guy from the neighborhood, somebody who carries a lunch pail to the factory and stops by the corner bar for a Schlitz on the way home. But you can set your watch by him. He’s going to earn his pay every day without cutting corners or complaining.
That leaves Texas Tech’s Chris Beard as the lovable basketball lifer who finally got his chance and made the best of it.
Before returning to Texas Tech three years ago (he was there previously to Bob Knight and then Knight’s son, Pat), Beard’s head coaching jobs were at Fort Scott Community College, Seminole State College, the South Carolina Warriors (of something called the ABA), McMurry State, Angelo State, and Little Rock.
That’s not exactly a traditional road map to the Final Four. Yet here he is, with an armadillo of a team led by sophomore Jarrett Culver, and who knows? Maybe he’ll make Lubbock, Texas, known for something other than rock legend Buddy Holly and his band, The Crickets.
And where, you may ask, are the bluebloods? Where are Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Michigan, and Gonzaga? All were given a legitimate chance of replacing Villanova as the national champ. But all came up against a lesser-regarded team that believed, really believed, that its time had come.
The biggest fraud of all proved to be Duke. The ballyhooed Blue Devils, loaded to the gills with one-and-done superstars, were saved from losing to Central Florida in the second round by a block call against 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall that clearly was a charge by Zion Williamson, the 6-7 action hero who owned the regular season.
It took a similar call involving Zion to enable the Blue Devils to survive Virginia Tech in the Sweet Sixteen. Finally, however, Michigan State put them out of their misery. It was only the second time Izzo had defeated Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in 14 meetings.
Of the four regionals, the South, held in Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center, got the best games. In the semifinals, Tennessee-Purdue was a classic that might have gone the Vols’ way except for a controversial foul call in the closing seconds.
Virginia’s four-point win over Oregon was a nice game, but the Cavaliers’ breathless escape against Purdue – and Carsen Edwards’ 42 points – was every bit as thrilling as the Purdue-Tennessee game.
It is difficult to imagine anything happening in Minneapolis that will top anything we’ve already seen, unless Auburn wins the title and Bruce Pearl bangs NCAA president Mark Emmert on the head with the trophy.
Auburn and Texas Tech should certainly be loose, because both already have exceeded expectations. Still, Virginia and Michigan State are not going to be overconfident because their coaches simply won’t allow it.
I suppose I should end with some thoughts about UK, which ended up a win short of acceptability. In 10 years, John Calipari easily has recruited more future NBA talent than any coach in the nation. But he has only one NCAA championship to show for it.
His fans talk about making the Elite Eight seven times in 10 years. While that’s an admirable accomplishment, UK is not a place that measures itself by Elite Eight appearances. The more interesting fact is that the Wildcats have taken home the national title only once in the last 21 seasons.
If you’re a UK fan who’s pleased with the results of Calipari’s devotion to the one-and-done system, that’s fine. No problem with that. But if you think it’s time to make some tweaks, that’s also fine. But it’s a fact that the teams that win NCAA titles seem to have a mix of experience and youth that UK usually doesn’t have.
In closing, I’m going to assign each team a rock song as its anthem. For Texas Tech, it’s Buddy Holly’s “Rave On!”; for Auburn, it’s “Sweet Home, Alabama,” by Lynrd Skynrd; for Michigan State, it’s “What’s Goin’ On?” by Motown icon Marvin Gaye; and for Virginia, it’s “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters.
Do any of those classics strike a vibe in you? Whether one does or not, let’s hope this sizzling NCAA Tournament brings its heat to Minneapolis for a rousing windup to a strange season.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.