pblackwell, Mon, March 30th, 2009
Once in a while, the Final Four just seems a lot more interesting, even if, by the end of march, we've all overdosed on too much college hoops and need intense rehab.
Maybe the teams have more flavor. Maybe the players have interesting stories. Maybe the coaches sparkle. And maybe the location adds to the tale, rather than serve as just another backdrop for just another convention-weary city accustomed to seeing out-of-towners descend upon their homeland week after week.
All of the above applies to 2009. The fact that they're going to Detroit, to a city and state ravaged by economic downturn, adds a poignant facet to this tale.
True, the city has seen lots of sports glory this decade - the Red Wings' pair of Stanley Cup titles, an NBA title for the Pistons, even a pennant for the Tigers after two decades in the wilderness. They even hosted a Super Bowl three years ago.
On the other hand, they're stuck with the Lions. Think 0-16. All those other bits of glory came before the economy tanked, and were fairly limited to the Motor City environs anyway. They didn't really grip an entire state the way this show will.
That, of course, is because Michigan State is around. Rest assured, Ford Field will positively shake with emotion, spirit and green-and-white noise when the Spartans take the floor Saturday night against Connecticut. Not since 1988 (Kansas, Danny Manning) will a Final Four participant benefit more from being so close to home.
Michigan State got there the hard way, surviving Kansas and putting together a masterpiece to take down Louisville. It's a team that fits the spirit of the state - tough, hard-working, counted out many times, but resilient and impossible to conquer.
This is what the Huskies must face. True, UConn has been, arguably, the tournament's most impressive team, never in serious late-game trouble at any point in Philly or Glendale.
On the other hand, Jim Calhoun's Huskies are very much the enemy going to Detroit. Between that nice, fresh recruiting scandal that broke last week and the fact that they'll be facing the home-state Spartans, it will be downright hostile. Which UConn just might relish.
The other game on Saturday carries just as much flavor. North Carolina expects nothing less than the big prize. Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green didn't come back this year just to get another Final Four bid.
Favored from start to finish, the Tar Heels have beaten every tournament foe by double digits. With so much talent on hand, Roy Williams has somehow kept everyone happy because, in the Dean Smith tradition, they'd rather win than fatten up the stat sheet. Kentucky could learn something from these guys on how to maintain a vast winning tradition without resorting to smug self-importance.
Yet don't think Villanova will be scared by any of this. Young, handsome and photogenic, Jay Wright will be the media star of this Final Four week, and for good reason.
Wright's Wildcats are settling nicely into that role of underdog that their 1985 predecessors thrived in. Most people thought 'Nova wouldn't beat Pittsburgh, but Scotty Reynolds made a full-court drive into history in the best game of the tournament. And those same experts will ink Carolina into the final, too. That would be a big mistake.
To be sure, you'll hear for five days about how it's certainly going to be Huskies vs. Heels for the big prize Monday night. But in a tournament that hasn't seen too many surprises, maybe it's high time for a couple.
Just imagine if Michigan State, spurred on by the roars of their home-state fans, gets to the final, facing a Villanova team convinced of its own destiny after knocking off Pitt and Carolina. Should either of them reach the final, they'll be easy to root for.