INDIANAPOLIS -- If you hold even the slightest affection for college basketball, you must come to a Final Four at some point in your life. I attended my first at the age of 15, in this same city, in the now-imploded Hoosier Dome.
Knowing the 1991 Final Four was coming to a city just less than two hours from our Cincinnati home, my father entered us in the NCAA's ticket lottery nearly a year ahead of time -- and we won! Our seats were located in the aptly described "Distant View" section, yet my memories of that evening remain vividly clear. If anything, that perspective served to reinforce for me the enormity of that event.
I remember being inordinately impressed that the NCAA had hung banners for all 64 tourney teams around the interior facade. I remember being in awe that the two high-school coaches seated behind us said they attended the Final Four every year. I remember Dean Smith getting tossed during North Carolina's loss to Kansas in the first game. I remember Jayhawks stars Mark Randall and Adonis Jordan were really good.
But I mostly remember the electrifying anticipation in that building as the second game wore on and it became ever more likely that underdog Duke would knock off 34-0 UNLV, the most feared team in the land. I remember Greg Anthony fouling out, Christian Laettner hitting those free throws, Anderson Hunt putting up that awkward last shot and 47,000 people gasping at what they'd just witnessed.
Nineteen years later, I can look out my hotel room at the site of this year's Final Four, monstrous Lucas Oil Stadium (featuring massive logos of the four teams on its facade), and see streams of fans of all ages walking the streets. Many attended Friday afternoon's open practices (most notably hometown Butler's) for a taste of the festivities. Others will partake in the NCAA-sponsored fan festival, "Bracket Town." There will be more than 70,000 spectators on hand Saturday, many of which traveled considerable distances and paid hundreds of dollars for tickets that would make my one-time "Distant View" seats seem like courtside digs by comparison.
I hope for all their sakes they'll be treated to a modern-day equivalent of Duke-UNLV, an all-time classic between either Michigan State and Butler or the Blue Devils and West Virginia that they, too, will remember fondly two decades from now.
Unfortunately, recent history suggests the odds are slim.
Little did I know that day in 1991 that I'd be witnessing arguably the last transcendent national semifinal game of the recent era. For all the interest surrounding this event, and considering the quality of teams that generally advance this far, the Saturday games of Final Four weekend have an unusual penchant for being incredibly ... dull.
Look back at the scores of the 20 semifinal games played since the start of this century and you'll find such forgettable clunkers as Michigan State 53, Wisconsin 41 (2000); Kansas 94, Marquette 61 (2003) and UCLA 59, LSU 45 ('06). In fact, with the exception of one indisputably dramatic Saturday in 2004 when Georgia Tech beat Oklahoma State on a last-second layup and UConn pulled off a last-minute comeback against Duke, all but one semifinal game over the past decade has been decided by at least nine points. Nearly half (nine) were certifiable blowouts, ranging from 14- to 33-point margins.
Some degree of letdown is inevitable when you're dealing with such a small sample size. While upsets and buzzer-beaters are an annual occurrence in the earlier rounds, there are also far more games (32 in the first round, 16 in the second, etc.) from which they can emerge. You've only got two chances come this round.
Having said that, there's only one championship game each year, and it's managed to produce such memorable recent classics as Kansas-Memphis in 2008 (Mario Chalmers' game-tying buzzer-beater), UNC-Illinois in '05 (Raymond Felton's last-second steal), Syracuse-Kansas in '03 (Hakim Warrick's block) and UConn-Duke in '99 (Trajan Langdon's turnovers).
Perhaps it's due to the inherent randomness of the NCAA tournament. Four round of upsets often leave a disparate Final Four field that can result in mismatches. For all the excitement over George Mason's 2006 run to Indy, the end result was two semifinal busts (Florida-GMU and UCLA-LSU) decided by 15 and 14 points, respectively. The aforementioned 2000 Michigan State-Wisconsin stinker pitted a No. 1 seed vs. a No. 8.
But even when the bracket went chalk two years ago, sending four No. 1 seeds to San Antonio, Kansas pummeled UNC 84-66 (going up 40-12 in the first half) and Memphis suffocated UCLA 78-63. At least they made up for it with a thrilling duel two nights later.
There is no team in this year's Final Four that rivals the dominance of those two titans, nor that of last year's national champion Tar Heels. And there will be no Duke-over-UNLV level upset this go-around because none of this year's teams is a prohibitive favorite.
For those reasons and more, I'm holding out hope -- admittedly against my own better judgment -- that Saturday's games will buck the recent ho-hum trend.
There are no seed disparities with this year's matchups. We have two five seeds (Butler and Michigan State) in one game, a No. 1 (Duke) and a No. 2 (West Virginia) in the other. On paper, at least, the teams are evenly matched.
And the very reason that many are deriding this Final Four -- its lack of "star power" -- may help create drama. It would be mostly out of character for any of these teams to run the other off the court. For one, they lack the offensive firepower, but more pertinently, they're all highly consistent defensive teams, which leaves them less vulnerable to fall on the wrong end of a blowout.
Vegas seems to think we're in for a pair of good ones. Butler is listed as a one-point favorite over Michigan State, Duke a two-and-a-half point favorite on the Mountaineers. Either result, were it to actually occur by that margin, would be thrilling for the 70,000-plus spectators Saturday -- myself included.
In the years since that first trip to Indy as a teenager, I've had the incredible fortune to cover seven Final Fours and move from the periphery to press row. I've seen some fantastic games, most memorably that Syracuse-Kansas title game, but none that can match the collective excitement of that '91 classic.
For years, the Super Bowl was cursed with much the same affliction, but its past three editions have all been classics. The World Series seems to involve extra-inning nail-biters nearly every year.
As anyone who's ever attended one can tell you, the Final Four is every bit as special an event as those. For once, it deserves a set of games befitting it.