OMAHA, Neb. -- Upsets are the best. They may be the main reason that a nation gets captivated by one 68-team basketball tournament every March. And this March we've have so … many … upsets: Loyola-Chicago (all the way to the Final Four!) and Buffalo and Marshall and Nevada and UMBC, UMBC, UMBC.
But Cinderellas should know their place. And the place for so many Cinderellas is the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, not the second weekend -- and, with rare exceptions, certainly not in the Final Four.
My perfect Final Four looks a lot like the 2013 Final Four: Three traditional powers (Louisville, Michigan and Syracuse) and one Cinderella (Wichita State). And that's why this wild and wacky tournament that's sent so many sports gamblers to debtors' prison deserves the game it's going to get Sunday at 5:05 p.m. ET in Omaha and televised on CBS.
Blue blood vs. blue blood, chalk vs. chalk, two of the greatest programs in this sport's history (Kansas ranks second in all-time victories, Duke fourth) battling it out for one slot in the 2018 Final Four -- which is already set up to replicate 2013's fun, with Loyola-Chicago taking Wichita State's place and Michigan returning.
As a basketball writer, I don't root for teams per se. I root for storylines. And on Friday at CenturyLink Center, I worried that we were going to get the Elite Eight game we didn't deserve: Clemson vs. Syracuse. There are nice storylines here, of course: An upstart program under Brad Brownell that plays choking defense vs. a legacy program under Jim Boeheim that probably didn't deserve to make this NCAA Tournament field but once it did, it got rolling. I like both of those coaches; I appreciate both of those programs.
But nobody, not even the hardest of hardcore Clemson or Syracuse fans, would argue that those two teams have been among the four best teams in the country this college basketball season.
And I want a few of the sport's best teams in every Final Four.
I love the storylines on both of these teams left in the Midwest Regional. For Kansas, Bill Self won his record 14th straight Big 12 regular-season title (the most impressive streak going in sports, by the way) despite a roster that may be his least talented during his Kansas tenure. He has done this with a dearth of depth down low, relying on the midseason addition of Silvio De Sousa, who should still be in high school, to shore up those frontcourt deficiencies. Kansas has stumbled -- three home losses this season equals Kansas' home loss total from the past five seasons combined -- but Self got this guard-heavy team to a point where, yes, they can win a national title, warts and all. If this team does win a national title, it'll be one of the most impressive improvisational coaching jobs we've seen in a long time.
As for Duke? Well, talent's not the problem there. No, sir. Duke is starting five players who may all become first-round picks. This is the most talented team in college basketball, period. Marvin Bagley III is an athletic terror all over the court. Wendell Carter Jr. is college basketball's Big Fundamental. Gary Trent Jr. is a dead-eye shooter. Trevon Duval can be mistake-prone but plays with absolute electricity when he's confident. And Grayson Allen is Grayson Allen, this team's most reliable force.
Duke almost didn't make it to the Elite Eight. Friday night's game against Syracuse was a rock fight, which was exactly what Syracuse wanted. Duke couldn't seem to figure out Syracuse's zone; when they found the soft spots in that zone, usually just inside the free-throw line, Bagley and Carter seemed reluctant to shoot the mid-range jumpers, passing up open shots for contested ones.
Duke shot an abysmal 5 of 26 (19.2 percent) from three, its worst three-point shooting game since … well, since the last time it played Syracuse, another rock fight of a game back in February. On Friday night, Syracuse somehow outrebounded that vaunted Duke front line. The difference-maker was that Syracuse kept coughing up the ball while Duke didn't: 16 turnovers to Duke's seven. The game got close at the beginning of the second half -- that's when Coach K peeled off his sports coat to the roar of the crowd -- and stayed that way until the end.
"It was a battle," Allen said. "It was a fight. We knew going in it was probably going to be close all the way down to the wire, especially with how good they've been playing defense recently. Their length and activity up at the top of the zone kind of disrupts your offense and what you're trying to do."
"We just got to come out ready to play from the beginning," Bagley said afterward. "We were kind of slacking in this game. I think we'll be ready for (the Kansas) game. Everybody's going to be up. We should be coming out strong."
On the left-hand side of the bracket, we will have either Loyola, an 11-seed mid-major with a helluva story, or Kansas State, a 9-seed afterthought whose disrespected coach is finally getting the credit he deserves, in the Final Four. We will get Florida State, a typical Leonard Hamilton team in that they are big and strong and defend the hell out of the post, or Michigan, an atypical John Beilein team in that they hang their hat on defense more than offense.
That all sounds fun: A bunch of teams that a couple months ago nobody expected to be dancing this late in March.
Fun is good! Upsets are good! But better than upsets are what we have left on the right-hand side of the bracket, the traditional powers like Duke and Kansas and Villanova -- and, oh yeah, a random and tenacious Texas Tech team that's going to disrupt this whole dang thing.
Give me upsets the first weekend. But give me blue bloods in the Final Four.