In today's game, it seems that no amount of accomplishment in the regular season or conference tournament can match the respect and admiration accorded those that have earned a berth in the coveted Final Four.
While we acknowledge the fragility of the NCAA Tournament, and the vulnerability of teams to match up difficulties in a "one- and-out" scenario, we place an incredible
amount of emphasis on whether a team validates its season by reaching the national semifinals. Coaches are measured by whether they reach the level
of the penultimate game, then whether they can close once they get there. Players' college careers are judged by whether they can guide their teams to the final
weekend, and each have only four chances (at most).
To the victors go the spoils, but such a facile definition of ultimate achievement or failure seems to miss the point. While we honor those who successfully navigate the 65-team format, we should not so quickly dismiss those that for one reason or another fell short of San Antonio.
For example, Stanford, Pittsburgh and Kentucky were teams worthy of a Final Four.
In the case of Stanford, it could have reached San Antonio with better matchups. Pitt should have been a No. 2 seed to Oklahoma State's No. 1, and never should have had to play Wisconsin in Milwaukee and Oklahoma State in a regional semifinal. Kentucky should have treated UAB's press the same way that Kansas did, but didn't, and lost when the final shot rimmed out. Both teams had magnificent seasons, but were written off as serious teams as soon as they lost.
Similarly, Saint Joseph's and Xavier had unbelievable runs, but the finality of their losses seems to trivialize just how remarkable those runs were. Saint Joseph's took a Lilliputian lineup and made the big shots adjust to it, blowing through the season unbeaten until getting throttled by conference foe Xavier. The Hawks were magnificent all
year long, and as fun to watch as any team in recent memory.
While no team has an easy road to the Final Four, no team had a bumpier ride than did Xavier. To have to face Louisville, Mississippi State, Texas and Duke -- and play well enough to win each of those games -- is remarkable.
Compare Xavier's slate to that of UConn, Duke, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State. It is hard to argue that Xavier didn't play as tough a tourney schedule, and
almost as well as any team in the Final Four field. What those teams did is worthy of greater respect than we seem to provide.
For the winners, the Final Four is the ultimate jewel on their basketball résumés. Right or wrong, it validates each as a coach or a player, and places you in
elite company. Relatively few have made it to a Final Four, and it is a wonderful experience.
While the players have their camcorders readied for San Antonio, they had better pay attention to what is in front of them, because the spotlight will
stay on what they do on the floor for the rest of their lives. And, there is no greater distraction than the atmosphere at the Final Four.
People they haven't heard from in years come out of the shadows to ask for tickets; family members come from all over; it is next to impossible to get
through the hotel lobby without being pushed and pulled in 10 different directions. The media are all over the place, and it is a whirlwind of events that can make your head spin if you are not prepared for the circus.
But, it's a hell of a lot of fun.
Re-Seed the Final Four?
UConn-Duke is the marquee national semifinal. Many are opining that the rematch of the 1999 championship game is the de facto title game this year.
Not so fast.
There are too many examples of the perceived No. 1 and No. 2 teams staging an epic battle, with the winner beaten in the final by having lost an edge, or having gone into the championship game beaten up by the fight in the semis.
The idea of re-seeding is a bad one, and it is almost as bad as re-naming the regions to match the regional sites. If we were to separate Duke and
UConn because we think that it would be a better matchup as a championship game, then we may wind up out-thinking ourselves and missing out on the
Remember, Georgia Tech has beaten both Duke and UConn during the season, and Oklahoma State is perfectly capable of beating either team. By re-seeding, we could easily get Duke or UConn knocked out, anyway. Besides, that's the whole point of a tournament. They don't re-seed Wimbledon if one of the big shots gets upset early, nor do they re-seed the NFL or NBA playoffs if there is an early-round shocker.
If UConn-Duke is such a recognized title game, the tournament should have been seeded initially to reflect that. It wasn't. It was
seeded not on who the best teams were, but based upon what the teams had accomplished on paper.
Before the tournament started, I believed that UConn was the best team, followed by Duke, Kentucky and Oklahoma State. After that, I thought Pittsburgh, Saint Joseph's, Stanford and Mississippi State were next. As the No. 1 and No. 2 overall seeds, Duke and UConn would have been opposite each other if my bracket were the final product. But, so what?
Like we agreed before the tournament, we can all have different ideas about which teams were the best based upon our own subjective standards.
But there is no way to screw up this tournament once the games begin. It has a certain magic to it and, aside from the play-in game and the new names
for the regions, it has little wrong with it.
10 Final Fours? ' You gotta be kiddin' me!'
One of Mike Krzyzewski's most oft-used phrases is "you gotta be kiddin' me". Well, with a record of 10-1 in regional rinals over his 24 years at Duke,
he's gotta be kiddin' us. It's Wooden-esque.
What Coach K has done is a mind-blowing triumph, especially given the changing landscape of the game over his tenure at Duke. It is almost
unfathomable to expect any coach or any program to match that level of success in today's game.
I played for and coached under Krzyzewski, but I don't consider myself biased in believing that he is one of only a handful of coaches who can be
reasonably included in a discussion of the greatest coaches of all-time. Similarly, I believe him to be among the finest coaches and leaders in the
history of American sport. His slate of accomplishments is comparable to John Wooden's at UCLA in the 1960s and 1970s.
Note that I said that Krzyzewski's 10 Final Fours and three titles are
"comparable" -- not superior to Wooden's accomplishments, as some seem so
fast to declare. There is no question that Coach K's slate should be viewed
favorably against Wooden's, but I would hesitate to state that it is better
automatically because of the difficulties of contemporary basketball.
While it is difficult to compare eras, I am not so quick to dismiss Wooden's time
as easier than today's game.
Just for a barroom argument, let me take the devil's advocate position to stick up for Wooden. It is true that Wooden only had to play four games to
claim the title to Krzyzewski's six, but I believe that Wooden could have
handled the No. 16 seed and the 8 or 9 seed just as easily as he handled the
teams he faced in the Final Four.
I also don't buy the regionalization argument either. While the West may not have been as strong as the East in
the '60s and '70s, it was plenty good enough to beat a lot of East Coast
teams in those days. The East did not roll over the West when UCLA was
taken out of the picture. How did Pete Newell steal the 1959 NCAA
championship at Cal if West Coast basketball was inferior? How did Bob Boyd
have so many outstanding teams at USC? How did USF win two titles just
before Newell? That weak West Coast argument is a myth.
Similarly, if UCLA had it so easy, why didn't anyone else win two, three or four titles in a
row before or after the Bruins did it? Certainly, if it was so much easier,
wouldn't someone have ripped off three in a row?
And if the East Coast was so much stronger back then, couldn't the representative of the East and Midwest have given UCLA a better battle in the Final Four? How did UCLA, after having feasted on all of those "weak West Coast teams", kick the hell out of everyone in the Final Four? Even in 1974, when NC State finally clipped
the Bruins in the Final Four, the Wolfpack needed double overtime and a blown Bruin lead in Greensboro to keep it from being 11 titles in a row.
Plus, Wooden didn't just do it with Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton. He won with small, guard-oriented teams in the mid-'60s (Walt Hazzard and Gail
Goodrich), with forward dominated teams in the '70s (Curtis Rowe, Sidney Wicks, Richard Washington, David Myers and Marques Johnson), and with the
dominating center (Alcindor and Walton).
I believe Krzyzewski to be on the same plane as Wooden, and his equal as a winner. I promise you that I would not trade having played and coached
under Coach K, and I believe that Wooden's players feel the same about him. That is as it should be, as both amazing leaders and achievers.
Final Four Coaches
Jim Calhoun, UConn: Calhoun has been among the elite coaches in the game
for a long time, but it took the 1999 national championship to validate his
credentials to the masses. Now, after building a powerhouse in tiny Storrs,
he has the chance to add another title to his Hall of Fame résumé.
Calhoun expects this team to win, and has patiently brought them along when his team
had its relative struggles approaching the tournament. His insertion of
Rashad Anderson into the starting lineup has made a big difference, and his confidence in Taliek Brown could pay off with another national championship.
Eddie Sutton, Oklahoma State: Sutton should have been with Calhoun on the
ballot for the Hall of Fame, and takes a tough group matchup problems into
San Antonio. Sutton has always been known for tough man-to-man defense, and
this team guards you, and forces you into challenged jumpshots. Then, they
run on you. Transition is where this team excels and beats you.
Sutton has another outstanding team, and his assistant Sean Sutton has been a co-head
coach with him. This Final Four is as much Sean's as it is Eddie's.
Paul Hewitt, Georgia Tech: Paul Hewitt is a wonderful teacher of the game,
and he has fought the established powers of the ACC to bring Tech up into the
upper division of the league. He can X-and-O, and teach the game with anyone
in the business. But I think his greatest strength is the belief he has in
his players. The Yellow Jackets feed off of his confidence, and play at a higher level
because of it.
Who wouldn't want to play for a coach that believes in you like Hewitt does?
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke: See above. You gotta be kiddin' me.
Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst at ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.