Three of the teams are Final Four regulars, programs that expect to be practising and playing in the first week of April, not attending end-of-season banquets.
Trying to pull a post-season surprise is Villanova, a school that might not have the tradition of North Carolina, Michigan State or Connecticut but does have the biggest shocker in NCAA tournament history on its colourful resume.
Villanova once again will enter the Final Four as an underdog, though hardly the kind it was in 1985, when Rollie Massimino’s team was eighth-seeded and shot 78.6 per cent to knock a growing Georgetown dynasty off its pedestal.
This time, the Wildcats (30-7) are third-seeded, coached by Jay Wright (with Massimino almost certainly watching from the stands) and have a semifinal meeting set for Saturday against North Carolina.
The other semifinal will be between Connecticut and Michigan State, and there’s little doubt who will have home-court advantage in that one. The Final Four is coming to Detroit, and the Spartans (30-6) are playing only 90 miles from home.
A nice ray of sunshine for a state that has suffered more than most over the past year, when it comes to job losses and the recession.
“I’m just hoping we’re a silver lining in what’s been a little bit of a cloudy year for us,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “I’m hoping that we’re the sunshine, I’m hoping we’re something to embrace, be involved with, and I hope they all support us because, you know, I haven’t even had time to think about UConn.”
The last team to play the Final Four in its home state was Duke. The Blue Devils lost to Arkansas in the 1994 title game in Charlotte, N.C.
Villanova is, no big surprise, the long shot among this group of four, listed at 8-1 at the Las Vegas Hilton race and sports book. Carolina is the 5-6 favourite, while UConn is 5-2 and Michigan State is 5-1.
Jay Kornegay, executive director of the Hilton sports book, said he expects big action on Michigan State because of the nationwide popularity of the Big Ten. And he says Villanova can’t exactly be looked at as the lovable underdog it was back in 1985 – or even the next George Mason, the 2006 long shot. Not possible considering the Wildcats come out of the Big East as a No. 3 seed.
“But we’ll see a buildup this week and the Cinderella could be created because they’ll be facing the tournament favourite,” he said.
Carolina (32-4) is an 8-point favourite against ‘Nova, while UConn (31-4) is favoured by 4 over Michigan State.
Michigan State’s win over Louisville on Sunday prevented this Final Four from having three teams from the Big East, the way it happened when Villanova won it all in 1985. But there is still a chance of an all-Big East final.
“I’m worried about the next game,” Wright said. “But if history repeats itself, I’ll take it.”
North Carolina makes its second straight Final Four and will try to make up for an inexplicably bad first half last year. The Tar Heels fell behind 40-12 to Kansas in the semifinals, a blowout so bad that CBS announcer Billy Packer said the game was over.
They rallied to within four but wound up losing. Carolina’s star, Tyler Hansbrough, decided to return for his senior season.
He got what he was looking for – as did the rest of the Tar Heels. They’re heading to their record 18th Final Four, and Ty Lawson is dominating after missing the first game of the tournament with a toe injury.
“It’s a different team,” senior Danny Green said. “It’s a new year, a new day. It’s a new game, and we know what our goals are.”
Carolina, Connecticut and Michigan State are all looking to join Florida as the second team with two championships in the 2000s.
Connecticut is actually looking for its third title since 1999. Both the previous championships came after winning the West Regional, which is where UConn was sent this time, too.
“I’m buying a house” out here, coach Jim Calhoun said.
But there hasn’t been much to laugh about this season for Calhoun’s team. The Huskies lost shooting guard Jerome Dyson and his 13 points a game in February, yet still managed to get a top seed.
Calhoun missed the Huskies’ first-round game, hospitalized with a bout of dehydration. More recently, the coach has been answering questions about possible recruiting violations.
“I’m as happy as I can possibly be about the basketball situation,” Calhoun said. “I’m so proud. I said to the kids, so happy for this group. I mean, I feel like busting out just because I just think they are really special, what they did once they got dealt a real tough blow. It took some bounces, it took some bruises.”
Some might say the Spartans, second seeds and underdogs in the regional finals against Louisville, had the benefit of low expectations. Not really, though, for a team now making its fifth Final Four trip since Izzo took over in 1995.
The coach has been talking about playing the Final Four at Ford Field in Detroit since the season began.
“It will be a proud moment,” Izzo said. “When I took this job and dreamed about where I could take the program, where we could take it, it’s these kind of things, it’s these kind of events.”