We need to be careful. As tempting as it is to view this Final Four as really two Final Twos, divided into heavyweight and bantamweight divisions, can an NCAA tournament that has produced UMBC over No. 1 Virginia and No. 11 Loyola-Chicago over everybody so far be expected to stick to a script?
In 1974 in Greensboro, Marquette coach Al McGuire characterized his team’s semifinal against Kansas as “the JV game.” The other semi featured UCLA, going for its eighth consecutive national title, against No. 1 North Carolina State. The Wolfpack of David Thompson toppled the UCLA of Bill Walton in double overtime and, sure enough, won the championship two nights later over Marquette. (McGuire incurred two technical fouls.)
And yet: Nine years later in Albuquerque, the same N.C. State was grouped in the JV bracket against Georgia, which had stunned St. John’s and North Carolina en route to The Pit. The other semi paired Houston’s majestic Phi Slama Jama against Louisville’s Doctors of Dunk. It remains the most breathtaking Final Four game ever. The watching world gave the Wolfpack no shot against Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in the title game, but State’s Lorenzo Charles slammed home the only dunk that mattered and Jim Valvano ran around looking for somebody to hug.
Villanova-Kansas will be the glamour game in San Antonio. It will not be the only game. Nobody will pick that semifinal winner to fall to Michigan or Loyola, but this is college basketball, not the NBA. If Virginia had played UMBC in a best-of-seven series, the Cavaliers would have won in five. The Big Dance offers no mulligans. You survive and advance – Valvano coined that phrase – or you weep bitter tears.
Villanova was the nation’s second-best team over the regular season. (Poor Virginia, now a cautionary tale, was the best.) Duke was, yet again, supposed to dominate, but even the great Mike Krzyzewski can’t always outcoach the peril of starting over every year with another batch of one-and-dones.
What we saw Sunday was something that hadn’t happened in a while – Bill Self and his Jayhawks coming up big in a massive March game. Kansas clearly couldn’t match the Blue Devils’ talent, but Duke’s inability to defend man-to-man left it vulnerable to the thing that can override any zone – the 3-point shot. The Jayhawks made 13 of them, just enough to offset 18 turnovers.
At the end, Duke was the same gifted-but-flawed bunch that didn’t finish first in the ACC and didn’t reach the finals of the ACC tournament and now it won’t be going to San Antonio. (For the record, this is the first Final Four since 2014 not to include an ACC representative.) And maybe we’ve figured out how Kansas, which has failed so spectacularly so often as a No. 1 seed, can succeed: It just needs to be the No. 1 seed that somehow seems an underdog.
That figures to happen to Kansas again Saturday. Villanova is very good. It numbers three holdovers from the 2016 national championship team, though they were supporting players then. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth are big deals now. They’re also juniors. Teams have won it all while relying mostly on freshmen – Kentucky in 2012, Duke in 2015 – but sometimes seasoning matters.
This is a different sort of Michigan team from the dynamic bunch that finished second here in 2013. (We recall that as the Final Four that was staged in a building that no longer exists and was taken by Louisville, which is no longer recognized as champion.) The Wolverines don’t shoot it the way they did then – they’re terrible at making free throws – but they slipped through a West Regional that saw Xavier, the No. 1 seed, blow a 12-point lead against Florida State, and North Carolina, the No. 2, lose by 21 in Charlotte to Texas A&M.
The history of No. 11 seeds in the Final Four – there have been three before Loyola – isn’t encouraging. All lost in the semifinals. Only VCU came as close as eight points, and that was against Butler, a fellow mid-major. There’s a chance the Ramblers will arrive at the River Walk having gotten fat and sassy after five days of congratulations in Chicago. There’s also a chance that Loyola, which hasn’t lost since January and has wrong-footed opponents seeded No. 6, 3, 7 and 9 in this tournament, will do the same to Michigan.
On paper, it’s hard to envision Michigan or Loyola unhorsing Villanova or Kansas in the final. Hard, but not impossible. After two weeks of UMBC and Sister Jean and brand-name teams failing to rise to their reputations, we should know never to say never. This Final Four could be the calm after the storm. It could also be as crazy as anything we’ve just witnessed, which would be saying something.