2019 NCAA Tournament: Why this unexpected Final Four shows that college basketball is still as unpredictable as ever
After the best Elite Eight in tournament history, the 2019 Final Four is a refreshing change of pace to other sports
That's one of the more random Final Fours we've had. And that's OK!
In fact, maybe it's even good. I like my Final Fours zesty and unpredictable. That's what we've got here, even if there's nothing wacky from a seed perspective like a No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10 or No. 11 moving on -- which was a feature, not a bug, of every Final Four since 2013.
Now the Final Four crashers are Texas Tech and Auburn, which have 30 wins apiece but are the two programs making their debuts on college basketball's ultimate stage.
The Cavaliers, Spartans, Red Raiders and Tigers survived the second weekend to make a march to Minneapolis after what was arguably the best quartet of Elite Eight games in NCAA Tournament history.
And so before we set the Final Four table, an ode on what just happened on Saturday and Sunday, because it wouldn't feel right to move on before giving credence to a terrific set of regional finals. Thrilling games. Vintage tournament-type memories and images. The kind of stuff the fans of schools on the right and wrong end of those outcomes will not forget.
I do think it was the best Elite Eight weekend in tournament history. By pure numbers, it's got a good case: the four games were settled by a combined 18 points. That comes out to 4.5 points per margin of victory/defeat, making it the tightest in history in that round of the tournament. Plus, two of the four games went to overtime, the Virginia-Purdue affair doing so on one of the more memorable buzzer-beating chaos sequences you'll ever see.
The other two games that didn't require overtime were decided be seven points total.
Here's how I would rank the four games:
Purdue goes down after getting the secondfrom Carsen Edwards in this tournament. His 28 3-pointers in four games are the most in a single NCAA Tournament in the history of the event. I was courtside and on tenterhooks at what Edwards was providing and how Virginia was counterpunching.
Michigan State's poise -- that 3 from Kenny Goins to take the lead for good with 34.3 to go was pure -- and capability to end the Duke story was impressive. Only seven turnovers for Sparty, while Cassius Winston had 20 points, 10 assists and one turnover. Only other MSU players to have 20 and 10 in a tournament game: Magic Johnson and Draymond Green. Hello.
The TTU and Auburn wins were dramatic and compelling for their own reasons. But all told, given the knockout nature of the bluebloods, the fact that all four games were close throughout, that we had all-time performances and even a buzzer-beater, I think it nudges past the epic 2005 Elite Eight that featured Illinois' ridiculous 90-89 comeback over Arizona in OT; Louisville's 83-85 OT win against West Virginia; UNC's 88-82 staving of Wisconsin; and Michigan State's 94-88 win over Kentucky in double overtime, featuring the Patrick Sparks 3-pointer that extended the game.
College football relies on Clemson and Alabama like clockwork to make the College Football Playoff. The Golden State Warriors are, barring a seismic upset, winning another NBA title this year. The New England Patriots, minimally, are likely to yet again make the NFL's final four come 2020.
The NCAA Tournament doesn't play by those rules. And that's why it rules.
The first weekend of the tourney, which set up a second weekend that paid off in a big way. Now the Final Four is a mixed bag. There's the letdown of not having a Kentucky or Duke or Gonzaga -- but now we've got really good stories to focus in on. New blood!
This is the first Final Four of Virginia coach Tony Bennett's career. He's no longer the best coach in college basketball without a Final Four on his résumé. He did it 19 years after his father made his one and only Final Four --.
This is a Final Four filled with newbies.and Auburn's Bruce Pearl are also here for the first time in their careers. Beard and Pearl's programs, as noted above, are also into the national semifinals for the first time.
Contrast that with the man whose last name is a synonym for March: Tom Izzo. He's back here for the. Might this is the Big Ten's best chance to win a national title since 2000? It's also the last time the Big Ten had a champ; MSU took it that year, of course.
Izzo got here by winning his ninth Elite Eight game in 11 tries. As a school, MSU has a weird dichotomy. It's 9-2 record in Elite Eight games is the best in college basketball history of all schools with at least five trips to the regional final. But MSU's success in winning the title after making the Final Four: 2 for 9.
Can this be title No. 2 for Izzo?
You'll also hear a lot about how this Final Four lacks a one-and-done player. The four teams are not only without that, 15 of the 20 starters on Saturday night will be juniors or seniors. It's a Final Four of experienced players but inexperienced coaches and programs -- mostly -- on this stage.
It's also the first Final Four in 12 years without a school from Kansas, Kentucky or North Carolina involved. Given how feverish those states' fan bases are with their college hoops, the ticket demand in Minneapolis will be worth tracking. Michigan State figures to have an advantage in fan support, but Texas Tech could prove to show up in stronger numbers than you might think.
If Tech or Auburn can win this thing, they'll become the first time since UConn in 1999 to win the national title as a first-time guest at the Final Four. Before you go doubting Auburn, take this into account: it just beat Kansas, UNC and Kentucky to get here. The only other time that's ever happened was in 1997.
Arizona won the title that year.
It's not a dream Final Four but it is one that will give us a compelling story, potentially even a controversial one, no matter who wins. And given the way these four teams are tough, physical and reliable defensively, we have a better-than-average chance of getting more close-if-not-great games to wrap up the season.
That's the most important part. You can wish for the hype and the stars and the biggest schools and usual suspects, but in the end, once we get to the games, we want close finishes and memorable moments and something that can give college basketball its best finish. And more often than not, college basketball gives us just that.
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