The first Final Four without majors? Hey, it could happen this year
For the first time in the history of the NCAA tournament, the Final Four includes no schools from the traditional Big Six conferences or their predecessors. In what may come to be known as "CBS's Nightmare," the four Final Four schools are George Mason, San Diego State, Richmond and Brigham Young, a collection that totals one Final Four appearance -- Mason's, back in 2006.
How did we get here? Well, George Mason led the way. The Patriots had broken through the glass backboard once before, with a run through three former national champions in 2006 that culminated in a trip to the Final Four as an 11 seed. This time, they made their push from the No. 8 slot, easily dispatching fading Villanova in the "second" round, 71-60, by holding the Wildcats to 45 percent shooting on two-pointers, 3-of-17 on threes and putting them on the line just six times. Playing defense without fouling is a key strength of the Patriots, who allowed fewer than 20 percent of their points from the foul line this year.
Fouls would be critical in the third round, but in a different way. Ohio State's Thad Matta leaned on his starters more than almost any coach in America -- just six schools got fewer minutes from their bench players. When the undersized Patriots attacked the lane early, they were rewarded -- in a very tightly-called game -- by a series of questionable foul calls that forced Matta to keep Jared Sullinger and David Lighty on the bench for most of the first half. With those two high-usage players out, the offensive load shifted to Jon Diebler, who was hounded by the physical Mason backcourt into a 1-of-9 shooting day. The Patriots used a 10-2 run midway through the second half, with Sullinger on the bench with four fouls to open up a 13-point lead, and never looked back. For the 14th time since the tournament went to 64 teams in 1985, a No. 1 seed had gone down in the second round.
Their Sweet 16 game against West Virginia was the toughest that the Patriots played. The bruising Mountaineers sent wave after wave of players to the glass, nabbing more than half of their own missed shots and more than two thirds of George Mason's. Down 48-44 with three minutes left, though, the Patriots -- the 14th-best three-point shooting team in the country -- found the range from deep, as Cam Long hit two big threes and Andre Cornelius nailed the clincher with 14 seconds left to put Mason up 54-50 and send them to the Elite Eight, where they faced off against 2006 victim North Carolina. The Tar Heels, who had struggled on offense since the ACC tournament, hit nine of their first 12 shots to open a 22-8 lead by the second TV timeout, then went cold as Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall started turning the ball over. The empty possessions added up, allowing Mason to take a four-point lead at the half. They never trailed in the second, and survived a spate of fouling by the Tar Heels by hitting 11 of 13 foul shots down the stretch and won, 84-76.
The Patriots will take on San Diego State, a Cinderella in name only. The Aztecs were the No. 2 seed in the West with an argument for a No. 1 -- the only team to beat them this season was Brigham Young -- and they showed why by holding Northern Colorado and Temple to a total of 101 points (.86 points per possession) on the tournament's first weekend, winning handily. Connecticut and Kemba Walker provided a great challenge in the Sweet 16, with Walker hitting a 24-foot three-pointer to send their game to overtime. With Kawhi Leonard on the bench with five fouls, Billy White took over in the OT, making shots on his first three touches to give the Aztecs a lead that they would not relinquish. Walker, perhaps finally exhausted, missed all of his six field-goal attempts in overtime.
The regional final against Duke was a classic, as D.J. Gay and Nolan Smith went mano-a-mano for 40 minutes in what amounted to a home game in Anaheim for the Aztecs. With the game tied at 64 and 3:41 remaining, the Aztecs' defense -- which was fourth in the nation at .87 points allowed per possession -- took over, forcing four turnovers and two missed shots. Leonard got to the foul line twice and Gay hit a layup, giving the Aztecs a 69-64 lead with less than a minute to go. They hit their foul shots in that last minute and held on, 75-70. Duke, as it had done at Florida State and at Virginia Tech, struggled in a close game in a tough environment -- the Honda Center crowd was a rare neutral-court negative for a Duke program that usually counts on support.
Richmond came out of nowhere in the Southwest. Its 12 seed indicated that without beating Dayton for the Atlantic 10 tournament title it might have been left out, and was quite an underseed for a highly efficient team that had beaten Purdue early in the season, and had four senior starters. The Spiders became the third straight non-major team to upset Vanderbilt in the first round, making 12 three-pointers -- Justin Harper had five -- to win going away, 75-62. Their hot shooting continued in the second round against Louisville, this time as Kevin Anderson dropped 33 on 11-14 shooting, including six threes. Preston Knowles tried to keep up, going for 29 himself, but the rest of the Cardinals couldn't score on one of the best defenses -- 15th in FG efficiency allowed -- in the country. The Cardinals went down, 70-57.
To the extent that any team could match up with Kansas, the Spiders did. Richmond has one of the tallest teams in the country as measured by
Perhaps they were tired, because the Spiders' win over Notre Dame in the regional final was the slowest of the tournament, just 57 possessions. With Notre Dame finally running out of steam -- the Irish made 32 of 70 threes in their first three games, but just five of 21 in the regional final -- Richmond used a methodical offensive approach to grind out a 56-50 win that made it the lowest seed ever to reach the Final Four.
After BYU suffered two ugly losses at the end of the year without Brandon Davies, many people believed the Cougars' No. 3 seed was a generous one. After all, while Jackson Emery and Noah Hartsock were fine complementary players, neither was capable of providing the physical presence on both ends of the floor that Davies did. In five games without Davies, the Cougars allowed 1.08 points per possession, a number that figured to spell their doom.
With the exception of their opener against Wofford, it could have. The Cougars simply ratcheted up the pace of the game, gave the ball to the player of the year and rode him to Texas. Not since the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks has a Final Four team been this much about one player, but Jimmer Fredette, with 162 points in four games, has put BYU on his back and gotten them to Houston.
The Cougars were fortunate, as well, placed in a pod with just one excellent offensive team, they reached the regional final without facing off against a team with a top-30 offense. (They can thank Michigan State, which upset Florida in the second round, for this as well.) In Wofford, St. John's and the Spartans, they also drew teams prone to fouling . The Cougars, 21st in the country in free-throw percentage, scored a whopping 60 points from the line in their first three tournament games. Fredette had 41 of those on 91 percent foul shooting.
It was the regional final, of course, that we'll all remember. With Pitt the best team remaining in the tournament, a favorite to not only reach its first Final Four in 70 years but win its first national title, Fredette put on a show: 55 points on 18-of-26 shooting, including eight in the first overtime, the last two on a runner in the lane that tied the game at 70. That shot seemed to take the life out of Pittsburgh, who coming off a double-OT win over Belmont in the Sweet 16 had seen quite enough of non-majors for the tournament. The Panthers scored just four points in the second OT, and succumbed to The Jimmer, 82-74.
This most remarkable NCAA tournament will produce a first-time winner, and in fact, two first-time final-game participants. In an era in which the football leagues have all the power and most of the money, the 2011 NCAA tournament served as a reminder that neither power nor money matters for 40 -- or 50 -- minutes a night.
Now, you'll have to excuse me ... Cinderella's buying shots.