For a sport that’s supposed to be in a state of crisis, college basketball has given us a doozy of a final weekend.
Criticism of the sport has been almost as big as the season itself in 2014-15. The game is too slow. The final minutes of the game stretch on forever. The officiating is inconsistent. The game has few household names actually playing the game.
All of these will be lingering issues, but not until Tuesday.
For now, we have an epic Final Four to watch.
This year’s Final Four is poised to give the sport a final weekend for the ages, perhaps approaching the legendary status of 1979, 1985, 1991 or 2008.
We’ve counted down the ways this will be possibly the greatest Final Four of all time — 31 ways to be exact, one for each Final Four since the field expanded to 64 in 1985.
Kentucky already has The Unforgettables and The Untouchables. The Wildcats are looking to add The Unbeatables. No team in college basketball has been 38-0. No team since UNLV in 1991 has made it to the Final Four undefeated (34-0). And no team since Indiana in 1976 has finished a season undefeated (32-0). Kentucky is chasing basketball immortality.
2. Wire-to-wire great teams
The NCAA Tournament is random, and even teams that were great all season lose before the final weekend. It’s a statistical improbability that four of the best teams during the season actually make it to the Final Four. Three No. 1 seeds are in the Final Four for the first time since all four made it in 2008 and only the fifth time since seeding began in 2008. Not only are Kentucky, Duke and Wisconsin No. 1 seeds, they have been consensus top-five teams for most of the season. Kentucky has been No. 1 all year. Duke has been in the AP top five all year. And Wisconsin spent one week ranked seventh this season and never lower than that.
3. A Kentucky-Duke title game
Not that we’re rooting for a Kentucky-Duke national championship game — upsets of either would be monumental on their own — but the prospect of an all-blue title game is tough to resist. They’re two of the most polarizing teams in the country. Someone will surely pit John Calipari’s vacated Final Fours against Mike Krzyzewski’s “doing things the right way” (even though Coach K has had his share of one-and-dones). The game has the baggage of Christian Laettner’s game-winning shot in overtime of the 1992 Elite Eight.
4. People are watching
The game is still facing an existential crisis in terms of year-round popularity and the quality of product. That said, it’s tough to call the game “unwatchable” when so many people are watching. Kentucky-Notre Dame was the highest rated college basketball game in cable history. An increase of 2 percent compared to last season was still enough to give the NCAA Tournament its biggest audience since 1993. Maybe it’s Kentucky, Duke, Wisconsin. Maybe it’s the availability of every Tournament game on basic cable. Maybe it’s the ever-increasing access to streaming games. Whatever the reason, the Final Four is viable water cooler conversation.
5. The Big Men
The national semifinal is going to give us Frank Kaminsky trying to navigate the stout defense of Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns. And the winner of that battle may draw Duke’s Jahlil Okafor in the national championship game. A Towns-Okafor matchup in the title game would be the first time the top two picks in the draft met in the national championship game. UCLA’s Bill Walton and NC State’s David Thompson faced each other in the 1974 title game but were selected No. 1 overall in separate drafts. The top two picks (Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) in the 2012 draft played in the same title game, they just played for the same team (Kentucky).
6. Pro Prospects
Beyond Okafor and Towns as the consensus top two picks, the Final Four is full of future pros. As many as nine players in the Final Four are in DraftExpress’s most recent first-round projection and five in the lottery: No. 1 Towns, No. 2 Okafor, No. 5 Justise Winslow of Duke, No. 6 Cauley-Stein of Kentucky, No. 10 Kaminsky, No. 16 Sam Dekker of Wisconsin, No. 17 Devin Booker and No. 19 Trey Lyles of Kentucky, No. 26 Tyus Jones of Duke.
There’s plenty of star power here with three first-team All-Americans in the Final Four in Okafor, Kaminsky and Cauley-Stein. This is only the third time in the last decade three first-team All-Americans have played in the Final Four.
8. The coaches
Every coach in the Final Four has won a national championship — Bo Ryan’s came in Division III, but more on that later. Still, we’ve got a combined 2,532 career wins, 203 NCAA Tournament wins, 27 Final Fours and six Division I championships in this group. All four coaches were ranked in the top 10 of Athlon’s preseason coach rankings, including each of the top three.
9. Coach K’s historic year
The big number for Krzyzewski is 1,000 as he became the first men’s college basketball coach to 1,000 career wins with a Jan. 25 victory over St. John’s. The season has been historic in a handful of other ways. He’s now tied with John Wooden for the most Final Four appearances (12), moving ahead of Dean Smith’s 11. A championship would give him five titles, breaking his tie with Adolph Rupp and moving him to No. 2 to Wooden’s unbreakable 10 titles. He’s also tied Jim Boeheim for the most Tournament appearances (31), and he passed Smith’s record for career ACC wins (432).
10. The Hall of Fame
The two coaches facing each other Saturday — in their second consecutive Final Four — are both up for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s not certain either or both will get in, but they will get in eventually. Krzyzewski is already in. Izzo is a virtual lock, meaning this Final Four in history’s eyes will have four Hall of Famers. The last time we can guarantee such a thing was 2001 when Krzyzewski, Izzo, Arizona's Lute Olson and Maryland's Gary Williams were in the Final Four.
11. Bo Ryan’s bid for history
To think, there was a time when the knock on Ryan was that he couldn’t win in the Tournament, never mind that he won four Division III championships at Wisconsin-Platteville from 1991-99. If Ryan wins a Division I national title, he’ll be the first coach in NCAA history to win championships in multiple divisions.
12. Michigan State is the underdog
No Final Four is complete without an unlikely team, and in this group of three No. 1 seeds and power teams, Michigan State gives the national semifinal an appropriate underdog. The Spartans have only one McDonald’s All-American (Branden Dawson) and few highly rated pro prospects. Remember, last year’s team with Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling seemed destined for a Final Four. This Michigan State team was on the bubble at one point his year.
13. Tom Izzo
College athletics need more big-time coaches who don’t take themselves too seriously and aren’t afraid to wear their emotions on their sleeve. In just the last year, Izzo dressed like Gene Simmons at Midnight Madness and crumpled in embarrassment when his team missed free throws in a win over Indiana.
14. Willie Cauley-Stein
Cauley-Stein is a defensive whiz, the most experienced player on a potential 40-0 team and an eminently quotable college basketball player. He’s also a rarity in the sport. He’s an All-American averaging 9.1 points per game, making him the first All-American to average fewer than 10 points per game since 1944-45. That player? Notre Dame’s Bill Hassett, who averaged 8.6 points per game that year.
15. Kentucky’s unselfishness
Not only is Cauley-Stein a rare All-American in terms of scoring, the entire Kentucky team would be an oddity if the Wildcats win a national title. Since the field expanded in 1985, only six national champions didn’t have a 15-points per game scorer. The lowest-scoring top scorers on a title team in the 64-team era are Kansas’ Brandon Rush in 2008 and Florida’s Taurean Green in 2007, both at 13.3 points per game. At 11 points per game, Kentucky’s top scorer Aaron Harrison would shatter that mark.
16. Aaron Harrison’s clutch shots
No one was more emblematic of Kentucky’s title game run last season than Aaron Harrison, who hit game-winning shots in the final seconds against Wisconsin in the Final Four and Michigan in the Elite Eight and a go-ahead shot against Louisville in the Sweet 16. With a go-ahead shot against Notre Dame in the Elite Eight this season, Harrison has proven he still has it.
17. Quinn Cook’s humility
Kentucky’s players aren’t the only ones who had to learn to put ego aside to reach the Final Four. Quinn Cook had been Duke’s starting point guard for two seasons before Krzyzewski recruited Tyus Jones. In essence, Coach K was asking his senior point guard to move to shooting guard to make room for a freshman. Cook did it without complaint and both have flourished as a result. The result was moments like this:
18. Justise Winslow’s emergence
He’s managed to upstage Okafor and Jones as Duke’s best freshman in the Tournament. His all-around play hasn’t been a revelation necessarily — he’s been a great scorer, rebounder and defensive presence all year — but it has been the critical piece of the puzzle for Duke.
19. Sam Dekker’s emergence
It wouldn’t be fair to say Dekker hadn’t reached his potential at Wisconsin, but he never was an overwhelming player for the Badgers, either. That has changed as Dekker has twice set career highs (23 points against North Carolina, 27 against Arizona) in the regional. The 6-9 forward was unstoppable in the second half against the Wildcats with 5-of-5 3-pointers.
20. Tyler Ulis
At 5-foot-9, Tyler Ulis is already one of the smallest players for a major program. Playing on a team with Kentucky’s size only makes his stature more pronounced. He doesn’t back down, though, as evidenced by this exchange with Auburn’s 7-2 center Trayvon Reed.
21. Nigel Hayes
Every Tournament introduces America to a character who happens to play college basketball. Nigel Hayes is that year’s player. Hayes messed with a stenographer and got caught on a hot mic admiring a lady in the room.
22. Karl-Anthony Towns
A potential No. 1 overall pick who photobombs his coach? Sure.
23. Wisconsin’s laid-back team
Seriously, this is just about every press conference for this team. No one is having more fun than Wisconsin right now.
24. An All-Big Ten title game?
A Wisconsin-Michigan State championship game would require two upsets on Saturday, which on its own would be monumental. Those upsets would also set up a title game involving two teams from the same conference, something that’s happened only twice in the 64-team era (Kansas over Oklahoma in 1988, Villanova over Georgetown in 1985). It would be the first all-Big Ten final since Indiana beat Michigan in 1976.
25. Travis Trice’s mom
Do you hear that banshee-like scream when Michigan State’s opponents are attempting free throws? That’s Travis Trice’s mom.
26. Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr.
That’s the name of Michigan State’s freshman guard. His given name Lourawls is from his father, who was named for the 60s-70s singer Lou Rawls. “Tum Tum” is from a character the 1992 kids movie 3 Ninjas. That’s how you end up with a Louralws “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr.
27. The NCAA has a social conscience
The NCAA and its members are still trying to tackle many issues, from violence against women to compensation for players and more. Credit the NCAA for leaving no wiggle room on its position on Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act. On the eve of the Final Four taking place in Indianapolis, the NCAA was one of the first of many national entities to condemn the law and threaten to move events to other states.
28. Bill Raftery
Bill Raftery is one of the nation’s most beloved college basketball color commentators, but for various reasons, he’s never called a Final Four until this season. Send it in...
The matchups don’t need any more juice than they already have, but there’s plenty of familiarity here. Kentucky beat Wisconsin 74-73 in the Final Four a year ago. The Wildcats lost to Michigan State in Chicago early in the 2013 season. Duke beat Michigan State 81-71 in November. Of course, Wisconsin and Michigan State are conference foes, but they played an epic overtime bout in the Big Ten championship game.
30. Vicarious wins
Congratulations, Texas Southern, Rutgers and Miami, you beat teams in the Final Four.
We’ve got Ashley Judd (Kentucky), Aaron Rodgers and Olivia Munn (Wisconsin), Magic Johnson (Michigan State) and members of the Dallas Cowboys (Duke) sharing the arena with guys like this...