There was a moment, just before the tide rolled back, when you just knew: Whatever happened next, you'd remember it forever.
It was the 2:35 mark of the second half. Kentucky, all 37 wins and zero losses of it, was trailing deep into what was supposed to be Victory No. 38. But undersized and undermanned Notre Dame wasn't just testing the unbeaten, supposedly unbeatable Wildcats. The Fighting Irish had been, for 37 minutes, out-and-out beating them: spacing the floor, rebounding, controlling tempo, making all the big plays.
Then the ball left Jerian Grant's hand. You could pinpoint the moment, freeze the frame in your mind. Grant may have been 30 feet away from the rim, but you knew that thing was going in. And no matter what came after it did, it was going to be monumental.
For Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison, a different realization crept in: This is actually happening.
"Desperation," Harrison would call it later, after the Wildcats got their first consecutive stops of the second half in that final 2:35; after Harrison buried the winning free throws with 6 seconds to play; after Grant ended the most-watched NCAA tournament game in history having been chased into a literal and metaphysical corner.
"We had no choice," Harrison said, "or we were going to lose."
Kentucky's desperate instant had nothing to do with the rest of the Elite Eight, with the game that preceded it in Los Angeles or the two that would follow in Syracuse and Houston. And yet it also had everything to do with it. That fuzzy signal you picked up when Grant let it go -- that something big was about to happen, one way or the other -- proved strong enough to span every corner of the continental United States. It was unknowingly received by Wisconsin, and by Michigan State, and by Duke.
By Sunday night, the signal returned. The static had cleared, and the message was clear:
You were right. This is going to be epic.
"This," of course, is the 2015 Final Four. Epic may be an understatement.
What, exactly, have 64 NCAA tournament games given us? Four Hall of Fame coaches. Twenty-six Final Four appearances. Six national titles. A combined 2,489 career Division 1 wins. (Or 2,842, if you want to count Bo Ryan's dominant non-D-I run at Wisconsin-Platteville, and why wouldn't you?) Four intense and well-traveled fan bases, three of which are within driving distance of Indianapolis, where locals are already counting cash -- a city full of Mr. Swackhammers, preparing for the swarms to descend. Three No. 1 seeds, and a program that always plays like one come March.
And that's just the backdrop. On the floor, the final weekend of the 2015 NCAA tournament appears to have been ordained by the basketball gods. And they said, let there be dream matchups, and there were dream matchups. And they saw that it was good.
The lone surprise, the one lightweight -- Michigan State -- qualifies only in relative terms. Oh, sure, you remember Selection Sunday. Oh, how you mocked the careless analysts. They would talk about all of the reasons why this Michigan State team wasn't very good, or they'd skip over those entirely, but they'd always end with a hoary old cliche: "Then again, never count out Tom Izzo in the NCAA tournament."
If ever there was a year to do exactly that, it was this one. The Spartans may have pushed Wisconsin to overtime in the Big Ten tournament title game; they may have even deserved to win. But they'd also been merely OK for most of the three months preceding it, matching each step forward with at least a half-step backward. These undermanned, talent-drained Spartans lost to Texas Southern at home in December, and sure, they got better. But they still finished sixth in a soft Big Ten in points allowed per possession, and fourth on the offensive end.
Naturally, in three straight March games, Michigan State dropped a onetime national title co-favorite (Virginia), the Big 12's best defensive team sporting its conference player of the year (Oklahoma; Buddy Hield) and, on Sunday, in a heart-pounding overtime thriller, a surging, talented team brilliantly coached by one of the game's grandmasters (Lousiville, Rick Pitino). Last season, when the Spartans were loaded, with seniors who were the only class in Tom Izzo's career to never get to a Final Four -- that was supposed to be the run. And now look. You'll never mock the cliche again.
Once you accept that Izzo somehow just pulled off his greatest tourney trick ever, the temptation to pencil Duke in to Monday night's national title game wanes -- though only slightly.
After all, the Blue Devils just pulled off quite a trick of their own. After a season spent thriving on potent offensive efficiency, getting by on the almost unprecedented scoring gifts of freshman center Jahlil Okafor and the slice-and-dice guards surrounding him, Duke will arrive in Indianapolis looking nearly as impressive on defense. In Sunday's regional final win, Duke held Gonzaga to just 14 points in the final 16 minutes of the game, and just 52 in 59 possessions. The Blue Devils had yet to yield more than a point per possession in their three tournament wins, which included a calibrated leap in Friday's 63-57 win over Utah. But Gonzaga? Mark Few's group was one of the nation's four best offensive teams, one with size and depth and an All-American-level lead scorer (Kyle Wiltjer) and a telekinetic point man (Kevin Pangos) that shredded opponents on pick-and-rolls all season. On Feb. 26, Duke allowed 11-win Virginia Tech to hoist 86 points in 66 trips.
With defense like that, the Blue Devils couldn't, and wouldn't, win in the tournament. At the very least, they couldn't beat Kentucky -- if and when America's dream national title matchup materializes.
Now it might. Now, Duke could go toe-to-toe with Kentucky. But before we find out, the Blue Devils have the small matter of an insanely hot Michigan State. And, by the way, the Wildcats have to get past the mother of all Final Four draws: Fellow No. 1-seed Wisconsin.
The Badgers' genius for scoring has often been sublime in 2014-15. They effortlessly toyed with the Big Ten, and it was never a surprise to see eye-popping per-possession statistics. And then, in Saturday's Elite Eight win over Wisconsin, they floated above the laws of physics. They scored 1.68 points per possession in Saturday's second half. They shot 79 percent from the field, and 83 percent from 3. Arizona, the best non-Kentucky, non-Virginia defense of the 2015 season, contested Wisconsin's shots throughout. It simply didn't matter: Wisconsin made six of its seven contested 3-point shots, including the already-famous (Sam) Dekker's Dagger.
Dekker is one of two of Bo Ryan's players who could have left for the NBA draft after last season's Final Four run. Frank Kaminsky is the other. Kaminsky spent all season as the deserving Wooden Award favorite; Dekker has elevated his already excellent game in the postseason. Forward Nigel Hayes, when he's not trolling stenographers with his seemingly limitless vocabulary, is yet another of Ryan's big, athletic, deep-shooting and fundamentally unimpeachable forwards.
Why did Dekker and Kaminsky eschew the NBA? To spend another year with friends, sure, but also because of the pain. A year ago, they had Kentucky beat, if only barely, when Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison sank that deep and downright spooky 3 that left Jackson with nothing but a 17-foot pull-up jumper. Every day since, Wisconsin has been singlemindedly focused on returning to the Final Four -- and, if need be, repaying the Wildcats once there.
Now they have their chance.
Of course, these are not last year's Wildcats. Last year's Wildcats muddled through a mess of a campaign before flipping some transcendent switch in March. This year's Wildcats have never flipped that switch off. They're undefeated, and maybe you've heard something about that. But of course you have, because from the moment the Harrisons and Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson (and more) all said they were coming back for another season, Calipari has stood above college basketball like a conquering general: surveying, deploying, dominating. His players, as he keeps saying, are his reinforcements: tanks coming down over the hill.
Kentucky is the best defensive team of this season, and many seasons before it. It is nearly as good on the offensive end. It has the potential No. 1 overall pick (Karl Anthony-Towns), and much more where that came from. It is unselfish, balanced, focused and immune to distractions. It might also be the best clutch team in the country: In the 47 close-and-late minutes it has played this season -- when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of second halves or overtimes -- it has scored 1.32 points per trip and allowed .84.If you somehow match Kentucky for the first 35 minutes, they break you in the final five.
It is, in case you hadn't heard, 38-0 -- two away from 40, two steps from immortality.
There has been only one question worth asking about the 2014-15 season: Who could possibly stop the Wildcats? The answers have always been halting and hedging. But they've always been consistent, too.
Wisconsin. And Duke.
If the Wildcats want those last two wins -- and they very much do -- they're going to have to earn them.
That, in the end, is why Grant's release was a harbinger of the epicness to come. For once, when it really mattered, Kentucky looked normal. Human. When Grant's shot went up, Ivan Drago took his real first cut of the fight. The Wildcats weren't a machine. They were men.
By then, Wisconsin had already held up its end of the bargain. A day later, Duke would too. The dream matchups arrived on schedule. And so here we are: Indianapolis. Unbeaten Kentucky. An epochal goal. Just as we always knew. But things are different now, too. Now, thanks to Notre Dame, we've seen Kentucky bleed. We've seen them feel. We've seen them get desperate.
We've seen that this coming weekend -- in the biggest Final Four 2015 could have possibly produced -- nothing is a given.
Come on: How epic is that?