Auburn guard Jared Harper (1) led the Tigers into the Final Four on Sunday.

The great Zion? Gone. Jared Harper and Auburn? Still going

Zion Williamson, destroyer of opponents’ souls and once the sole of his shoe, isn’t going to the Final Four. Jared Harper, a 5-foot-11 guard who weighs as much as Zion’s left leg, is. Jared Harper is the first Pebblebrook High Falcon to lead a team to the Final Four, and he’s the only alum of Nickajack Elementary — he was in my daughter’s third-grade class; Ms. Carter was the teacher — to be named MVP of an NCAA regional. 

A Big Dance that was all chalk and through its first week and six quarterfinals went crazy thereafter. From the final two games of Friday night — Virginia Tech missed point-blank against Duke, which at that point seemed the luckiest team in the history of the sport, and Kentucky undid Houston in the final 30 seconds — through the entirety of the Elite Eight, everything came down, as Notre Dame’s Mike Brey would say, to “game situations.” 

Of the four regional finals, the underdog won three. Texas Tech’s victory over Gonzaga turned on a technical foul for swatting an inbounder. Virginia needed a bat-the-ball-into-backcourt offensive rebound off an intentionally missed free throw and a 40-foot pass leading to a 10-foot shot that was released with 0.1 seconds remaining to force OT against Purdue. Auburn beat Kentucky, also in OT, when Harper, of Mableton, literally ran rings around fellow Georgian Ashton Hagans, the Newton High product who was briefly considered Mark Fox’s breakthrough recruit at UGA. 

And then Zion’s team lost. We should probably note that Michigan State won, but this was the season where, as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski put it, “everything that had to do with college basketball had Zion’s face on it.” ESPN gave him the wall-to-wall treatment usually reserved for LeBron or whatever NFL receiver is throwing a tantrum, and to his credit the 18-year old seemed like the only person not caught up in Zion Mania. (For the Big Dance, CBS even broke out Zion Cam.) He became the best college player of this century, but the great Zion will not become a national champ. 

The 2012 NCAA title taken by Kentucky with Anthony Davis — the second-best college player of this century — was hailed as proof that you could win a championship with one-and-dones. (Those Wildcats had three.) Three years later, Duke won it all with freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, who then split for the NBA. Four years later, we look again, and here’s what we see: 

Neither Kentucky nor Duke, the leading collectors of one-and-done talent, has reached a Final Four since 2015. The Blue Devils were trying to do it with four freshmen and were demonstrably the nation’s most gifted team. (RJ Barrett was among the nation’s five best players; both he and Cam Reddish will be, like Zion, lottery picks.) But they were as fortunate as all get-out to survive UCF and the 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall in Round 2, and they needed Ahmed Hill to miss at the rim to escape Virginia Tech, which had finished fifth in the ACC, in the Sweet 16. 

This might have been Krzyzewski’s most talented team, but it wasn’t nearly his best. This tells us that even the matchless Coach K can’t, in the span of 5-1/2 months, turn a team of teenagers into an all-conquering unit. Here’s the list of Duke one-and-dones who, since 2010, became lottery picks without reaching a Final Four: Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers, Jabari Parker, Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter. Now this star-spangled bunch. 

The NCAA tournament deals in the finest of margins — a technical on an out-of-bounds play, an insanely long rebound off a missed free throw. Mamadi Diakite was the guy who both tapped the ball out and made the tying basket, thereby enabling Virginia, which last year became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16, to become the only No. 1 seed to reach Minneapolis. March games come down to Game Situations, but who can envision, let alone diagram, what actually transpires? 

Maybe Tom Izzo. His Michigan State Spartans beat Duke on a 3-point shot by Kenny Goins, a former walk-on who’s a fifth-year senior. Goins flashed to the perimeter and, taking a pass from Xavier Tillman, hoisted the winner over the onrushing Zion. Given a chance to counter, Zion never got a shot. Barrett missed a 3-pointer, then got fouled on a drive. He clanked the first free throw and, when trying to miss, made the second. Game Situations, man. 

Also headed to Minneapolis: Texas Tech, as coached by Chris Beard, who was born in Marietta – Cobb County is well represented in this Final Four — and who doesn’t hide a lifelong love of chili dogs from the Varsity. And Auburn, as guided by Bruce Pearl, who received a show-cause penalty for lying to NCAA investigators at Tennessee and has seen Chuck Person, his Auburn assistant, plead guilty to charges of conspiring to commit bribery in the Feds’ shoe-company trial.

Nobody, however, ever said Pearl can’t coach. In succession, his Tigers have beaten Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, card-carrying bluebloods led by Hall of Fame coaches. 

But Auburn has Harper, who had 26 points and five assists against Kentucky, and Bryce Brown of Stone Mountain, who had 24 points. Pearl has recruited this state like crazy, which is one reason Fox no longer coaches Georgia. (He just took the California job.) The Tigers have four Georgians on their roster, though Atlanta’s Chuma Okeke won’t be available on Semifinal Saturday. He tore an ACL in a 20-point performance against North Carolina and will undergo surgery tomorrow. 

Of this Final Four, the Tigers are given the longest odds of winning the national title. Still, it’s worth noting that Okeke is a graduate of Westlake High, which produced a guy who led Auburn to a championship in another sport. (Cam Newton, football, 2010.) And you’ll recall that Kevin Ware of Conyers broke his leg in the regional final against Duke, and his cheerful-on-crutches Final Four presence helped spur Louisville to the national championship. 

And let’s face it: This was supposed to be Zion’s tournament to win. His team lost. With him gone, it would be no great shock if any of these four took the title, even the team from the football school led by the pride of Pebblebrook.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.

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