And then there were four.
There were 61 other teams who swear they could’ve, should’ve, or would’ve been playing for one more weekend, yet there are plenty of reasons why this particular foursome remains.
North Carolina collapsed. Kansas faltered. Memphis didn’t defend. And Oregon ran out of bullets. They are no longer at the party. For those Elite Eight teams, the dance is over.
But this isn’t about the dearly departed, this is about four schools who are deserving of dancing past midnight.
Florida is taking on UCLA. A rematch of last year’s national championship with both teams, minus Jordan Farmar, returning just about every key member of last year’s line-ups.
But it is so much more than a do-over. It is a clash of the two most important coaches in America. Not all-time, mind you, but right at this very moment.
Billy Donovan is oh-so-close to becoming the first back-to-back coaching champ since Mike Krzyzewski. Prior to Coach K, the last to do it was John Wooden. That’s fairly lofty coaching company.
This is Donovan’s third appearance in the Final Four since 2000. And the Gators won’t stop feasting anytime soon. Billy D doesn’t just win, he re-stocks. A year ago he won the title after losing David Lee, Anthony Roberson, and Matt Walsh. This year he has a chance to win it after convincing Joakim Noah, Taurean Green, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer to stay in school. The slick coach probably can’t get his stars to stick around for a three-peat attempt, but Donovan gets what Donovan wants. If a recruit doesn’t have Florida on his short list, it is only because Donovan didn’t bother to call him.
But Donovan doesn’t just recruit, he can also coach. Florida plays with exuberance and intelligence. They are offensively proficient. Whether they push the ball or play in a half-court set, the Gators are constantly moving the ball to get everyone involved.
His coaching counterpart has a completely different style. While Donovan’s teams make offensive execution look beautiful, Ben Howland’s teams find beauty in box-outs and black eyes.
Howland didn’t just construct one of the nation’s Top 10 teams; he built two of them. Instilling an undeterred toughness, he transformed an underachieving Pitt program and hardened a finesse-filled UCLA squad.
The battle between Ohio State and Georgetown will also feature two of the college game’s brightest coaching stars. Thad Matta and John Thompson III are each in their third season with their respective schools. And each has brought his school back to national prominence. The Buckeyes dominated the college basketball landscape back in the 40’s and the 60’s. The Hoyas hoisted banners in the 80’s. But, before this season, these two schools combined to make just one Final Four appearance since 1984.
Yet this semi-final isn’t about the reemergence of forgotten glory or the building of two coaching resumes. It is about Greg Oden and his place among the all-time great centers.
Even the most sensational freshmen could only dream about having the kind of season Oden has had. The 7-footer was named first team All-American by the AP. He put up stats (15.4 ppg. 9.5 rpg, 3.3 bpg) comparable with some of the game’s great first-year players. Ironic because three of the premiere post players in recent memory – Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo – hailed from Georgetown.
This year’s Hoya team features another towering mammoth in the middle, Roy Hibbert. Not only is Hibbert one of the best centers in the nation, but he is the only player in the tournament whose physical presence is on par with Oden’s.
NBA lottery teams have been patiently pining for Oden’s arrival into the league for years now. Since midway through high school, he knew his name would be the first name called at the draft, regardless of when he decided to make that happen. But now he has a chance to do more than improve his already unfathomably high draft stock. He has the opportunity to cement his collegiate legacy. And he can do so against the school that is renowned for having some of the finest big men the game has ever seen.
Thompson III grew up watching his father coach those gorgeous giants and now his team might be toppled by one.
If Oden leads his team over Hibbert and over history, he will face another daunting foe in the finals: UCLA – the team with more NCAA titles than any other – or a Florida team looking for their second in a row.
Yes, there are 61 other teams who could be where these four teams are standing now, but the basketball gods are quite proud of their creation of this Final Four.