In five days, they will turn together and fix their gaze at the far corner of a vast structure as a corny, lovable old song kicks up. They will smile. They will cry. They will be totally blown away. They will look, unmistakably, like kids.
The ball is tipped ...
At some point, they will see Stephen F. Austin's Thomas Walkup, he of the thick beard and the brilliant four-year career, salting away a statement against No. 3 West Virginia. They will see Yale in its first NCAA tournament win. They will see the agony and ecstasy of Northern Iowa, Arkansas-Little Rock's Josh Hagins' fade and bang from 25 feet, Middle Tennessee 90, Michigan State 81.
In those images, the 2016 national champions will see the entire sport writ large: 351 teams and 5,000 stories distilled in one glorious, madcap month. Small schools on shoestring budgets straining toward the sun. Really big teams hunting really big rings. Everyone in between.
They will see college basketball.
Or some of it, anyway.
The part they won't see will nonetheless hover over everything that comes before it. Because no matter which of 2016's last four teams emerge with the national title Monday night, either Syracuse or North Carolina, who meet in Saturday's second national semifinal, is guaranteed to be in the building.
Together, on the game's biggest stage: Two Hall of Fame coaches. Two elite ACC programs. One recent subject of an NCAA investigation, one ongoing, both glaring examples of the contradictions and compromises inherent in American collegiate athletics.
Together, in their fateful Final Four meeting, the Tar Heels and the Orange will stage two things: a basketball game and a forced, awkward encounter with the side of the sport that never makes the montage.
In the orange corner ...
A Syracuse program whose unlikely tournament run was in large part made possible by its decision to sit out last March. In 2015, the Orange self-imposed a postseason ban just a few months before the Division I Committee on Infractions announced the results of a decade's worth of investigatory effort. The findings included:
"Academic misconduct, extra benefits, the failure to follow its drug testing policy and impermissible booster activity ... impermissible academic assistance and services," and "the head basketball coach's failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance and monitor his staff," as well as "the school's lack of control over its athletics program."
It is a team whose season has been all but defined by its relationship to NCAA penance. Jim Boeheim, after all, was to serve a nine-game suspension at the start of ACC play ... until a successful, forceful appeal before the Committee on Infractions allowed him to step away in a less-critical stretch in early December.
The Orange went 4-5 in his absence. His return prefaced an 8-1 spurt in ACC play. A 1-5 slide before Selection Sunday didn't stop Syracuse from getting in the tournament, and didn't even require a trip to the First Four. Instead, as a surprise No. 10 seed (and the accessory to heavy criticism of the selection committee), Boeheim's team beat Dayton, watched Michigan State fall to No. 15-seeded Middle Tennessee and hasn't looked back since.
Boeheim has done perhaps his best coaching job, particularly as an in-game tactician, though he has always been great (and underrated). The Orange have caught breaks in selection and seeding and the circumstances of their opposition. Boeheim's suspension, not to mention the other penalties the program faced, haven't hurt them.
And if they hadn't taken the initiative a season ago, and prematurely called a season that had little hope of an NCAA tournament ending anyway, they wouldn't be in the Final Four right now.
"Things can happen in a program," Boeheim said. "That doesn't mean it's something dirty. It just means something happened that shouldn't have happened, and you try to correct it. You face your punishment and you move on. That's what you do."
So far, so good.
In the blue corner ...
An entire university rocked by decades-long academic fraud. An athletics program -- and its crown-jewel basketball team, now the favorite to win the 2016 national title -- still waiting for the NCAA to tease out its culpability.
A brief refresher: Between 1993 and 2011, Dr. Julius Nyang'oro, chair of UNC's Department of African and Afro-American Studies, and Debby Crowder, the department's student-services manager, "developed and ran a 'shadow curriculum' within the AFAM Department that provided students with academically flawed instruction through the offering of 'paper classes,' " according to the UNC-commissioned Wainstein Report released in 2014. These classes:
... involved no interaction with a faculty member, required no class attendance or course work other than a single paper, and resulted in consistently high grades that Crowder awarded without reading the papers or otherwise evaluating their true quality. ... It became common knowledge among certain quarters of the student and student-athlete body that Crowder did not grade paper-class papers with a discriminating eye and that a student could receive a high grade for turning in a paper of any quality. As a result, a significant proportion of the papers submitted in these classes included large amounts of unoriginal text. In a number of cases, students submitted papers with original introductions and conclusions, but with copied "fluff" text in between, because they knew that Crowder typically just skimmed the beginning and the end of a paper before awarding a high grade.
Which is completely insane. Yet, despite the disproportionate ratio of UNC athletes enrolled in these classes, and the known "steering" (and then some) by academic advisors in the athletics department toward these low-effort GPA boosters, the AFAM's sham classes were available to every student at UNC-Chapel Hill.
This has put the NCAA in an incredibly awkward position. This is an organization whose entire existence is tied to the "student" half of "student-athlete." It is also one whose rules purview is ostensibly restricted to sports, and which has no interest in what an expanded definition of its role might entail. For example: In a 2015 suit filed by two former Tar Heels athletes, NCAA lawyers wrote that the organization "did not assume a duty to ensure the quality of the education of student-athletes."
Meanwhile, last August, North Carolina's never-ending case was delayed further by UNC's announcement that it had found additional violations in women's basketball and men's soccer -- findings that would (totally coincidentally!) delay any eventual committee on infractions ruling.
In the meantime, North Carolina took the opposite approach to its opponent Saturday. It declined to self-impose any punishment -- for now.
And, for now, that decision has paid off. After a four-year title drought, Roy Williams' deep, balanced team turned a preseason No. 1 ranking into an outright regular-season title, an ACC tournament crown, a No. 1 seed and, now, a crack at the Final Four.
Throughout it all, Williams has talked openly about how much pain the academic scandal has caused him -- not only as a coach, or as a recruiter, but as a genuinely proud UNC alum. How it caused "people [to question] my integrity for the first time in my life." How he wouldn't retire after this season, predictions to the contrary, because he wanted to leave the program he (eventually) inherited from his iconic mentor, Dean Smith, on stable footing.
Meanwhile, his relationship with this particular group of Tar Heels is as strong, and as deeply felt, as any in his career. The memories they have given him -- from Marcus Paige's senior night speech to Williams' goofy, endearing, bum-knee-and-all postgame dances -- are happening in real time. The actual basketball, and the players playing it, have been, by his own account, Williams' "salvation."
"It's not just a workplace for me," Williams said this week. "It's been painful, it's been hurtful. This group of kids have helped me focus on basketball. It's been a sweet, sweet run. Hopefully we can do some more. Coming down to Houston, hopefully people will focus on the game, my players, what they're accomplishing, not the other stuff we don't have any control over."
None of the current Tar Heels were remotely involved in the AFAM scandal. Williams himself was never directly implicated. The school's decision not to rip away that group's chance at an NCAA tournament preemptively might or might not have been a canny cost-benefit analysis. Either way, it was the right thing to do.
In return, they've played great basketball. Sometimes, when the shots are falling, North Carolina is downright sublime.
"I'm really hopeful that will be the story down there," Williams said.
The hearing is called to order, and there you are ...
Williams' hope isn't misplaced. North Carolina's play on the floor, the chemistry that has helped create it, and the way that combination made a physically and emotionally pained coach look like a 10-year-old kid in those oversized, sideways hats -- that's a story.
As, for that matter, is Syracuse's remarkable path to this most unlikely of Final Fours. How the Orange snuck into this tournament. How they beat Dayton, caught a break with Michigan State, rode that chance to a comeback win over Gonzaga and parlayed their budding confidence -- and Boeheim's tactical brilliance -- into an expectation-obliterating party-crash in Houston.
Paige. Johnson. Malachi Richardson. Tyler Lydon. These are the stories -- alongside Buddy Hield and Ryan Arcidiacono and the coaches and players at Oklahoma and Villanova -- of the Final Four. How they got here. How they play. Who will prevail, and what it will mean.
These are the stories of every Final Four. They are constant: the players, the tactics, the triumphs, the heartbreaks. The pure joy of watching deeply talented and deeply invested groups of people working together. It's the side of college basketball that redeems everything else. It can be embraced without hesitation. It's what makes the montage.
At this Final Four, though, getting to the best of what college basketball can offer will require at least a day, and probably two, spent wading through the worst.
Rules. Appeals. Enforcement. Diligence. The limits of NCAA power. The viability of the "NCAA collegiate model." Systemic corruption. The outsized influence of sports on campus.
It's a question of whether it's possible -- to say nothing of whether it's moral -- to trade scholarships for billions of dollars in revenue without thinking these kinds of situations happen. And here we end up with two of them paired together on the final weekend of the season, where the glimmering innocence and high drama of "One Shining Moment" holds thematic sway.
That will be the story, too. Because that's what college basketball is. All of it.