This season's Final Four just as crazy as it is compelling
Now THIS is what a Final Four is supposed to look like.
We have a clear favorite (Louisville), two teams that could plausibly win it (Michigan and Syracuse) and a random team that appears to have accidentally hopped on the wrong bus. Wichita State even comes with a geographically challenged name and a star player named Cleanthony Early, which has to be one of the top five names in NCAA tournament history.
This reminds me of the 1985 Final Four, which featured heavy favorite Georgetown, plausible champs St. John's and Memphis State, and No. 8 seed Villanova, which of course beat Georgetown for the championship in one of the great upsets in history.
In a crazy college year when no team was truly dominant --- not even Louisville -- wouldn't it be fitting if Wichita State won the title?
I'm not predicting that. In fact, we should all agree not to predict that, so if it happens, it is a complete surprise to everybody and nobody can scream they called it, as if it were something other than dumb luck. So I think Louisville will beat Wichita State and play Michigan for the title. But I have been wrong before, and anyway, my predictions are not important. What is important is all the reasons this Final Four is compelling, such as ...
1. Louisville is both the bully on the block and a tear-inducing story. Guard Kevin Ware's gruesome broken leg Sunday means the Cardinals are playing with a rainbow of emotions. Will Ware's inspiration compensate for the loss of his skill?
2. The two best point guards in the country are probably Trey Burke of Michigan and Michael Carter-Williams of Syracuse. They face each other Saturday, and that is not only the best individual matchup of this Final Four -- it may be the best possible individual matchup in college basketball.
I believe Burke will be a star in the NBA and Carter-Williams has a chance, as well. The only downside is that it's not really a true one-on-one matchup because Syracuse plays that dastardly 2-3 zone, and speaking of which ...
3. That Syracuse 2-3 zone is genius. Not just because it has worked so well in this tournament. It's genius because it is suited for the kind of long, athletic players Jim Boeheim recruits, it allows those players to save their energy for offense, and it doesn't change that much from game to game. So Boeheim doesn't have to run his players through extra preparation. Syracuse is not big on extra preparation. Almost every year, Boeheim talks about mixing in some man-to-man. And by March, it's all 2-3 zone, all the time. Simple, effective ... brilliant.
4. Boeheim hired Rick Pitino at Syracuse and recommended John Beilein at West Virginia. He is the elder statesman of this Final Four. His program is also under investigation for like 400 things, but hey, elder statesmen aren't perfect. Look at Congress.
5. HIS NAME IS CLEANTHONY EARLY.
6. Louisville guard Russ Smith in this tournament: 54 percent from the field, 80 percent from the line, an astounding 10 free throws and 26 points per game. I'm taking away his Russdiculous nickname just so I can give it to him again.
7. When the Boston Celtics stuffed Pitino in a box and shipped him back to college coaching, he supposedly chose between two jobs: Louisville and Michigan. I say "supposedly" because I have not heard anybody in the know at Michigan say the school tried to hire Pitino.
Pitino said it. But there were a lot of obstacles in the way then -- Michigan's reluctance (at the time) to pay coaches big money, the lack of a practice facility, resistance from certain people of influence at Michigan -- and Pitino seemed to be using speculation to extract as much money as he could from Louisville. I don't think Pitino was remotely close to going to Michigan. But anyway, if Louisville and Michigan both win Saturday, this story will pop up Sunday.
8. Michigan can become the first Big Ten team to win a title since Michigan State in 2000. If that doesn't happen, then please, I'm begging you: Do NOT say the Big Ten was overrated this year.
The league put four teams in the Sweet 16, two in the Elite Eight and one in the Final Four. Of the top four teams, one made the Final Four, two others lost to Final Four teams, and the fourth, Michigan State, lost to Duke. Given the quirks of the tournament, that is a respectable showing for the best league in the country this year.
9. For the first week of the tournament, I was "embedded" with Michigan. If this were a war, that means I would have been inside tanks behind enemy lines. But since it's just basketball, it means I heard a lot of talk about ball screens. Good God, man. It's all ball screens these days.
Anyway, two weeks ago I asked freshman Nik Stauskas about possibly being too loose. Sometimes freshmen seem nervous. The Michigan freshmen have the opposite problem: They don't seem to realize the stakes. Stauskas admitted he is still learning to play hard on every possession.
"It's a dangerous line, I guess," Stauskas said. "The one thing I've been saying all year -- and it helps me with the pressure of college basketball -- is, 'At the end of the day, it's just basketball. It's just a game. And I play this game to have fun.'"
On Sunday, Stauskas made all six of his three-pointers against Florida, scored 22 points, and looked like he had never had more fun in his life. Guys like Stauskas are the key to the Final Four. The primary scorers should score. It's the third, fourth and fifth options who usually make the difference.
10. Louisville, Syracuse and Wichita State all had three-game losing streaks this year. Michigan lost three out of four in one stretch and the win came in overtime. What does this mean? I don't know. But I think it means the gap between the top and bottom of this Final Four is not as big as it seems. And this crazy season might just have a crazy ending.