Only blue bloods need apply
It turned out this wasn’t the year for something different, fresh, shiny or new.
The world wasn’t ready for Notre Dame advancing to its first Final Four since 1978, or Gonzaga marching on to the backdrop of Bing Crosby’s “Swinging on a Star.”
The Fighting Irish ran out of luck Saturday and the team from Spokane, on Sunday, broke a spoke.
The Final Four ended up with an old-money reunion of familiar, fleshy faces — four portraits hanging in a country club cigar room.
Sean Miller’s team, once again, got left standing on a corner, in Winslow, Arizona.
The Final Four we have been delivered — Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke, Michigan State — is as traditional as the Rose Parade.
Three of the schools still standing are the top seeds from the Midwest, West and South regionals.
The remaining “upstart” is Michigan State, No. 7 in the East, maybe, but coached by top-seeded Tom Izzo.
“Something New,” well, that was a Beatles album.
The gathering in Indianapolis next week features Duke vs. Michigan State followed by Wisconsin and Kentucky.
The coaches — Mike Krzyzewski, Izzo, Bo Ryan and John Caliparii — have combined for 27 Final Four appearances, 174 NCAA tournament wins and seven national championships.
Wisconsin and Kentucky haven’t met in the Final Four since way back last April, while Duke and Michigan State are synonymous with postseason success.
What saves next weekend from “same old syndrome” is Kentucky’s pursuit of college basketball’s first 40-0 season.
Kentucky got here with wins over Hampton, Cincinnati and West Virginia, by a combined 75 points, before getting two-point tested in the Midwest final against Notre Dame.
The game proved, at least, that Kentucky is not infallible.
“We’re undefeated, but not perfect,” Calipari has been saying to no one willing to listen.
Kentucky showed tremendous resolve under pressure against Notre Dame, making its last nine field-goal attempts and stopping the Irish on their final three possessions.
You ask: What was the Wildcats’ motivation?
“Desperation, probably,” guard Andrew Harrison said. “We had no choice or we were going to lose.”
Kentucky earns kudos for trying to do one of the toughest things in sports: win when everyone thinks you should.
Wisconsin might have an upset shot if it shoots the way it did against Arizona on Saturday, which was 78.9 percent (15 for 19) in the second half.
Kentucky edged Wisconsin by a point in last year’s national semifinal in North Texas. The difference was Aaron Harrison’s game-winning shot with 5.7 seconds remaining.
Wisconsin lost only one starter from that team, Ben Brust, who scored 15 points in that game.
The Badgers advanced to their second straight Final Four by winning the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles and then dispatching Coastal Carolina, Oregon, North Carolina and Arizona in the West.
“Last year it was a great feeling getting to the Final Four,” Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser said after Saturday’s victory at Staples Center. “It was almost like we were on top of the world. This year we kind of got the attitude like “what’s next” type thing. I don’t know. It’s a little different feeling. … We’ve got bigger goals and stuff on our mind.”
Wisconsin is playing fun and loose and riding two of basketball’s hottest hands in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, who combined for 56 points Saturday.
“We’re just trying to have as much fun as possible,” Kaminsky said. “We’re still kids. … I’m 21 years old. I’m having a blast. I’m trying to do all the fun things that I can do while I can still do them.”
Michigan State got here by flipping the switch on what appeared to be an ordinary 2014-15 campaign.
The Spartans, though, are led by Izzo, inarguably one of the game’s best late-season coaches. Michigan State, since suffering its 10th loss on March 1, has won eight of nine.
The defeat was to Wisconsin, in overtime, in the Big Ten tournament championship game.
Michigan State, in the tournament, has knocked out Georgia, Virginia, Oklahoma and Louisville.
“I wasn’t really planning on working this late,” Izzo joked. “But, God, I love to work this time of year.”
Things didn’t look promising Sunday after Louisville took an eight-point lead into halftime at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y. Louisville had won 94 straight games with a halftime lead of six points or more.
Louisville appeared ready to extend the streak when, trailing by one with only a few ticks left, Mangok Mathiang hit a tying free throw that bounced high off the heel and into the basket.
That had to be fate, right?
“We’re going to win this thing,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said to himself.
Mathiang missed his second try, though, sending the game to an overtime period dominated, 11-5, by the Spartans.
This was a big improvement on Michigan State’s overtime performance against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, in which the Spartans were outscored, 11-0.
Duke claimed the South by beating Robert Morris, San Diego State, Utah and Gonzaga, the Blue Devils’ victim Sunday in a dominating 14-point win in Houston.
Many favored Gonzaga because the Bulldogs had depth, size and the experience advantage over Krzyzewski’s young team.
In the end, Gonzaga proved it still wasn’t ready for prime time while Duke proved having Krzyzewski is the ultimate advantage.
Duke haters must now stomach another week of Coach K talking about hunting down more milestones.
Krzyzewski is now tied with John Wooden for most Final Four appearances, 12, and is two wins from his fifth NCAA title.
His matchup against Izzo, along with Ryan vs. Calipari, will be a love-fest hosted by the mutual admiration society.
This isn’t, necessarily, the Final Four any of us asked for, or wanted. It’s easier to get worked up when one of the four is George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, or the Shockers of Wichita State.
This Final Four, somewhat sadly, comes as no shock.