Mar 26, 2007 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
At this time 12 months ago, the buzz around the Final Four involved an upstart from the Beltway named George Mason, making the most improbable NCAA run in a couple of decades. Some remarked about UCLA’s attempt to revive the glory days. Others smiled at LSU and Glen (Big Baby) Davis for adding some levity.
Florida generated the least amount of attention in Indianapolis, but managed to sneak out of Hoosier country with the trophy and the nets, dispelling the notion that Gainesville was nothing but a football town — for eight months, anyway.
Rest assured, neither the Gators, nor anyone else, will sneak out this time around.
When the college basketball world – hundreds of coaches, hundreds of media, hundreds of curiosity seekers, and four actual basketball teams — descend upon Atlanta this week, they’ll be among giants.
Georgetown, Ohio State, UCLA and Florida are all, to some degree, part of the game’s ruling gentry. Each of them has won national titles — 11 of them in the Bruins’ case. They also share the common bond of a prolonged struggle to get this far, both in the regular season and the Dance they have shared the past two weekends.
In the case of the Hoyas, that exile from the top has been quite long — 22 years since its last Final Four visit. It took a restoration of the family name, and some remarkable clutch play, to book this reservation for the Georgia Dome.
John Thompson III arrived three years ago in the nation’s capital, fresh from Princeton, determined to take the program his father made famous back to the top — but doing it his own way.
This meant the Princeton system of back-door cuts on offense, matched with the old Hoya toughness on the defensive side. Quickly, the Hoyas went from Big East doormat to a sweep of this year’s regular-season and tournament titles.
Georegetown needed that rigor in the tournament, especially in the East Regional at the New Jersey Meadowlands. Jeff Green’s remarkable leaner off the glass with two Vanderbilt players in his face (and he didn’t travel, by the way) was followed by that gallant North Carolina comeback fueled by patience and ice-cold Tar Heel shooting.
In the same year that JTIII went to D.C., Thad Matta ventured from Xavier to Ohio State. He alienated folks in Cincinnati, but delighted the crowd in Columbus by turning into a recruiting demon, wooing Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr., among others, to the Buckeye fold while winning a surprising Big Ten title in 2006.
Oden’s mere presence made Ohio State a permanent force, as it rose to the top of the rankings and claimed the Big Ten title again. Then it showed its Lazarus tendencies in the tournament, rallying past Matta’s old employer, Xavier, in overtime, then erasing a 20-point deficit to edge past Tennessee before a romp of Memphis.
The odds are that, with NBA types drooling over Oden, he isn’t long for college. So even with five freshmen in key roles, this might be a small window for the Buckeyes, and it intends to jump through.
UCLA followers know all about seizing opportunities and capitalizing on them. When John Wooden ruled at Westwood, national titles were routine proceedings, and as time passes, the marvel over the Wizard’s 10 championships in 12 years only grows.
Ben Howland grew up with that dynasty, but in trying to restore it, he’s done so with defensive grit. Simply put, no team in the country plays better defense than these Bruins, who are in your face all the time to prevent open looks, then bang the boards to further the point. They aren’t as poetic as Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton, but they win.
And so much for the notion that those two late regular-season defeats exposed UCLA’s flaws. All the Bruins have done in the tournament is shut down one foe after another, culminating in Saturday’s effort where Kansas heard lots of imaginary footsteps and couldn’t make a thing. Conversely, Aaron Afflalo couldn’t miss.
This leads to a rematch of last year’s final, with UCLA burning for revenge against Florida. Gaining that payback will not be easy.
For an entire year, the Gators have lived with the bulls-eye a defending champion always possesses. The target got bigger when Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Taurean Green, Corey Brewer and Lee Humphrey decided to stick around to try and win it all again.
At times, a combination of illness, inconsistency and sheer boredom threatened to derail Florida, but the Gators never flinched. With every single opponent taking their best shot, Florida did what it had to, and though Purdue, Butler and Oregon all provided close shaves in the Dance, the Gators came out clean.
Naturally, this Final Four offers the biggest possible hurdles. Not only do the Gators have to prevent UCLA from payback, it must wonder whether Billy Donovan will hear the siren song of Kentucky. Really, if Florida repeats, what more can Donovan do there? The Big Blue nation is praying that Billy will show up to restore balance (and Final Four berths) to their lives.
Under the protective bubble of the Georgia Dome, it will all be decided. Each of the four survivors must feel like destiny is theirs, and it wouldn’t be a big shock if any of them ends up on top.
But the hunch here is that the ending will be the same as it was in 2006. Ohio State’s good fortune will run out against Georgetown, and Florida will hold off UCLA once more. And on Monday night, in the heart of SEC country, the Gators will reign.