Admit it. You didn’t have THIS quartet of teams heading to Houston for this year’s Final Four.
OK, maybe you had the University of Connecticut. I actually had them in one of my brackets (not my “sheet of integrity”, mind you), more out of sentiment for the fact that to this point they won me the only significant March Madness pool payout ever, back when they won their first men’s title in 1999. They;ve won three others since then, and are returning to the national semis for the first time in nine years after an absolutely convincing conquest of UCLA-killer Gonzaga last night. Reminds David Cobb of CBS Sports.com:
UConn won its first four games in the Big Dance by 15 points or more, becoming just the third team this century to accomplish that feat. Between UConn’s 88-65 win over Arkansas and Saturday’s 82-54 beatdown of Gonzaga, UConn is the first team since Kentucky in 1996 to win its Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games by 20 or more points.
But c’mon, did you even think that South Florida, typically known for football, spring training and bikini-clad hot dog vendors this time of year, would contribute TWO schools, both making their first-ever Final Four appearances? I’m giddy, of course, about Florida Atlantic, who we glowingly wrote about previously, who thrillingly knocked off favored Kansas State in Madison Square Garden last night. And, wonder of wonder, my University of Miami Hurricanes stunned a Kansas City crowd, many still reeling from the Wildcats’ upset by the Owls last night, with a spirited comeback that punched the final ticket to Houston this afternoon, as Paul Myerberg of USA Today reported:
Down 13 points just over six minutes into the second half and down 10 with 8:53 left, the Hurricanes shattered the Longhorns’ Final Four hopes with the most memorable stretch of play in program history. Driven by senior guard Isaiah Wong, who stirred to life after an unimpactful first half and finished with 14 points, Miami went on a 13-2 run to take a 73-72 lead with 5:26 remaining. And the experience gained in last year’s Elite Eight run paid off down the stretch, as the poised and relaxed Hurricanes made all 13 of 14 free throw attempts in the final four minutes to seal the victory.
And that was a fitting coda to an eventful afternoon that earlier saw a THIRD first-time Final Four team advance, the Aztecs of San Diego State, who had previously pulled off an impressive upset of their own, again per Myerberg:
The Aztecs will reach the first Final Four in program history thanks to a defense that has shut down two explosive opponents in the past three days. After picking apart Brandon Miller and No. 1 Alabama, San Diego State did the same to Ryan Kalkbrenner, Baylor Schneiderman and Creighton, holding the Blue Jays 21 points below their season average. But the Aztecs still needed a late boost to advance, and got that break when guard Darrion Trammell was fouled driving to the basket with 1.2 seconds left and hit one of two free throws to pull out the win.
So a most unlikely quartet of schools will gather in Houston’s NRG Stadium this coming weekend, collectively with seeds adding up to 23, the largest such total since 2011, when four schools adding up to 26 convened, at the very same venue. And it’s only the second time that three first-ever Final Four teams will make up the field, the last time back in 1970. St. Bonaventure and Jacksonville, each led by a massive center that would go on to a storied pro career, Bob Lanier in the NBA and Artis Gilmore in the ABA, along with New Mexico State were in that field. But best-in-class then was UCLA, in the midst of a record seven consecutive titles under the greatest college basketball coach of all time (sorry Dookies), John Wooden, so that field was all but academic. This group is without any such dominant force–even UConn didn’t exactly have its most successful season, against a far less impressive iteration of the Big East than they won their previous titles prepping against.
If you’re looking for a favorite of sorts, consider UConn was the lowest-seeded one of the four that included Kentucky, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, the latter one of only three double-digit seeds in tournament history to win four games and advance, The Huskies won one of their four previous titles against that group.
And if you’re looking for a villain, especially in Texas, consider that the Hurricanes knocked off top-seed Houston as well as number two seed UT, thus ruining the chance for locals to fill up the stadium. And in a climate where Texas and Florida already have a political arch-rivalry to see who can be a more conservative leader in culture wars, having the likes of schools from such blue-friendly locations as Connecticut and Southern California, on the heels of a political rally held in Waco for the leading Republican candidate for the 2024 presidential nomination, let’s just say the overtones for this gathering are particularly, pardon the pun, stormy.
Considering how revered college basketball in what I professionally once referred to as “the flyover states”, and considering the options available to students and fans of FAU, UM and SDSU, it must be exceptionally demoralizing to those who had planned to spend April Fool’s Day in Texas (and while the climate of Storrs, Connecticut isn’t tropical, it’s close enough to New York and Boston to also qualify as an unlikely gate-crasher).
But no matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, I’m confident this Final Four will be one for the ages, I know who I’m rooting for, but I wouldn’t bet a penny on picking a winner this year. But you would be wise to watch. You never know what might happen when the coastal elites crash the party.