Improbable Final Four sets up interesting clash of styles, storylines
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CHICAGO — This week, the NCAA will punish North Carolina and Syracuse for scandals by asking them to miss at least two more days of class to focus on basketball.
Not playing basketball. Promoting basketball. There are open practices to hold, and of course there are press conferences to conduct, during which somebody will ask about those scandals, which means the NCAA is forcing players to skip class so their coaches can defend their commitment to academics, which is kind of awkward, but anyway let’s talk about Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield.
How awesome is this guy? He scored 37 points against Oregon on Saturday, and that wasn’t even his best game against a really good team this year. He scored 39 points on 21 shots against Iowa State. He scored 46 on 23 shots against Kansas. There are times when opposing coaches call timeout and give their players the old “stop that guy or I’ll show your girlfriend your other cell phone” motivational speech, which leads to comical scenes like all five opposing players trying to stop Hield, as though other players’ baskets don’t count.
And Hield is on the undercard of this Final Four. TBS has selected Syracuse vs. North Carolina as the late game, which tips at 8:49 p.m. ET on Saturday, presumably because those teams have the biggest fan bases. And who knows? Maybe the Orange vs. the Tar Heels will be a game for the ages.
As Syracuse cut down the United Center nets after an impossible 68–62 win over Virginia, Juli Boeheim, wife of head coach Jim Boeheim, just said “Wow” and didn’t seem to know what else to say because nobody did. Even the Orange’s players couldn’t quite process what had just happened. Anything seemed possible.
We have a classic Final Four, in a sense: One clear blue-blood favorite (North Carolina), one heavy underdog (Syracuse) and two top-10 teams that could win the whole thing (Villanova and the Oklahoma Buddies).
We have two possibilities, however remote, of a Hall-of-Famer winning a championship and retiring immediately. (That would be Boeheim and UNC’s Roy Williams.)
We have a Villanova team with the most impressive win of the tournament, over No. 1 overall seed Kansas in the South regional final. Oklahoma has the best player. North Carolina has the best team.
And Syracuse? Well, Syracuse doesn’t care about any of that. To a man, the Orange said after they came back from a 15-point deficit with less than 10 minutes remaining to beat Virginia that they always thought they could do it.
There is a lesson there, cheesy as it sounds: Sometimes belief matters more than talent. (And Syracuse has more talent than its seed indicates—freshman guard Malachi Richardson, who lit up Virginia for 21 second-half points, was a McDonald’s All-American.)
There is another lesson here, too: Hire a great coach. And if you have a great coach, keep him—and keep him happy, even if some fans complain about him.
Yes, this is easier written than done, but you would be amazed at how many athletic directors don’t make this the priority in the hiring process. They hire somebody who appeals to the fan base, or plays an “exciting style” or has established a reputation as a “great recruiter,” perhaps on dubious grounds.
When Oklahoma hired Lon Kruger five years ago, he was not the hot young coach who would get fans dreaming of a 30-year run of dominance. He was 59. He did not have ties to one of the country’s top recruits the next year, and he was not coming off a surprising NCAA tournament run that made him the talk of the nation.
But coaches knew Kruger was a great one. His teams at Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV were all well-schooled and successful. A three-year detour to coach the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA knocked him off his career trajectory for a while, and Kruger is not the kind of salesman who can keep himself in the national conversation even when he is unemployed. But as Oklahoma fans will attest, and the rest of the Big 12 knows too well now, he can build a team as well as just about anybody.
And then there is Villanova’s Jay Wright, whose teams have mostly disappointed in the NCAA tournament. That can earn a coach a bad reputation among people who pay attention to college hoops for one month a year, and it can frustrate a fan base by ratcheting up expectations from October to March, then failing to meet them.
But Villanova stayed steady with Wright. He has never had overwhelming talent; that just doesn’t happen so easily at Villanova. He recruits very well and molds terrific teams. Stay with a coach like that, and you keep getting chances, and eventually you do something like beat Kansas in the Elite Eight and everybody is happy.
The anti-Villanova is Pittsburgh, which just let Jamie Dixon go and replaced him with now ex-Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. Dixon certainly wasn’t pushed out, but he seemed to realize that Pittsburgh was taking him for granted. He was right. Stallings is not a better coach or a better fit. He is just a different name.
The other two coaches in this Final Four, Williams and Boeheim, are Hall-of-Famers who supposedly couldn’t win the big one, then did.
They are as consistent as San Diego weather. Boeheim sticks with that 2–3 zone no matter what his critics say (though few could argue when he went to a full-court press that helped swing Sunday's game). There are coaches who adjust better than Williams, but he recruits the right talent for his style, skillfully implements that style and wins a ton of games.
You can count on a few things this weekend: Roy crying, Syracuse playing that zone, Villanova defending relentlessly and Buddy being Buddy. If we were grading this Final Four, we’d give it an A-plus. And we wouldn’t even make anybody go to class.