WHEN THE 61 games were done, the Final Four was not unpredictable, but, nevertheless, consists of a combination of four teams that was far from obvious. Nationally, Villanova probably was given less consideration than by those locally who had seen enough to understand the essence of Jay Wright's team. And Michigan State, under the radar in the Big Ten, played a near-perfect game yesterday to take out Louisville, the overall No. 1 seed.
North Carolina and Connecticut were no surprise. And nobody will be terribly surprised if they meet a week from tonight in the championship game at Ford Field in Detroit.
Carolina and UConn will be solid favorites. Anybody who does not think 'Nova has a chance just has not been paying attention. Are the Wildcats likely to beat UNC in the second game on Saturday? No. Is it possible? With this team, almost anything has to be considered, including a national championship.
Michigan State does not appear to have the firepower to hang with UConn, but the Spartans do have some serious athletes. Will that be enough to beat UConn? Again, unlikely.
UNC (32-4), UConn (31-4), Michigan State (30-6) and Villanova (30-7) are a combined 123-21.
Villanova's win over Pittsburgh was one of the best games in tournament history. Given the stakes, the caliber of play, the back and forth, the comebacks, the crazy plays and the ending, it is right there on the list of great regional finals. Not Duke-Kentucky 1992, but really, really good.
The key play for Villanova was Dwayne Anderson's steal, followed by a run-out/and one when the 'Cats trailed by four. The winning play was brilliantly called, beautifully set up and run about as good as a last-second play can be run. Did you notice three Panthers defenders behind Scottie Reynolds when he caught the ball, leading to an instant fastbreak with the ball in the middle, the kind of situation a player like Reynolds has faced thousands of times in practices and countless times in games? All Reynolds had to do was make a good decision. And he surely did that.
The conference numbers
The third Big East team could not make it, but the league has been dominant, going 17-5 and keeping alive the possibility of an all-Big East final. And nobody in this town needs to be reminded what went down the last time that happened.
The Big 12 could not get a team to the Final Four, but showed itself second best during the tournament, finishing with a record of 11-6. The Big Ten is 8-6 and the ACC just 7-6. Still, a team from each league got through.
Michigan State's Tom Izzo is one of the best preparation coaches in the game. He had a wonderful plan for yesterday's upset of Louisville.
The Spartans squeezed the court on defense, giving the Cardinals very little room to operate and daring their non-shooters to shoot long shots. On offense, Michigan State moved the ball against the pressure with short, crisp passes. The Cardinals' defense could not move as fast as the ball and, eventually, Louisville got frustrated and tired, playing right into the trap set by the Spartans.
The numbers Connecticut put up on the way to the Final Four are almost beyond belief. The Huskies have attempted 78 more free throws than their opponents, outrebounded them by 65 and blocked 25 shots. UConn has shot 122-for-237 (51.5 percent) and held their opponents to 99-for-271 (36.5 percent).
UConn fouls less than any team in the country and has Hasheem Thabeet on the baseline in case anybody's man gets near the rim.
When North Carolina is getting teams to miss long shots and running the ball the other way with the blur that is Ty Lawson, it is just about unbeatable. Oklahoma, which missed its first 15 shots from the arc, found that out yesterday.
Villanova is at its best at a fast-paced game, but the Wildcats may have to be a bit judicious against UNC. Or maybe they just play their go-for-it style and take their chances. Hard to tell these guys they can't go with anybody.
Pittsburgh did not play especially well in its first three tournament games. The Panthers were anything but imposters against Villanova. They played great hoops and made enough big shots to win the vast majority of regional finals. They did not lose it. Villanova won it. Pitt was certainly Final Four caliber.
Same with Missouri. Mike Anderson's team never backed down from UConn. Anderson did not get enough run in the coach of the year discussion. He took a dead program to within moments of the school's first Final Four. Anderson's UAB team was the last to beat Memphis in Conference USA. That would be 62 games ago. And Anderson got Memphis again in the Sweet 16.
Mizzou scored 338 points in its four games, while committing just 29 turnovers. Three times, the Tigers were in single-digit TO territory.
Been nice knowing you
Oklahoma sophomore Blake Griffin just finished off one of the great seasons in college history by racking up crazy numbers in four NCAA games. Griffin, the No. 1 pick in this June's NBA draft, shot 46-for-59 (78 percent), scored 114 points and had 60 rebounds. A ridiculous athlete with a very high basketball IQ, Griffin is going to make some NBA franchise very happy for a very long time.
Chester's Tyreke Evans, the consensus national freshman of the year, finished off his Memphis career with a nice three-game NCAA run - 67 points, 25-for-49 from the field, 15-for-18 from the foul line. He was only 2-for-12 from the arc and had 14 assists against 14 turnovers. So he has some things to work on, but he may as well get paid to do that work.
Did you notice?
* Not a single conference tournament winner made the Final Four. Louisville was the last one left . . .
* That UNC's Ty Lawson had 38 points, 14 assists and two turnovers over the weekend . . .
* That the OU game was NCAA win No. 100 for North Carolina . . .
* That the lead official in the 'Nova-Pitt game was Tom O'Neill, the same man who made the infamous travel call on Allan Ray at the end of the Wildcats' loss to UNC in the 2005 Sweet 16 . . .
* That Villanova shot 41-for-46 from the foul line in Boston . . .
* That Villanova has beaten 15 higher seeds since seeding began in 1979, the most of any school.
Price just went up
Anybody holding tickets to the Final Four that they would like to sell had to be smiling when Michigan State and North Carolina won. The Spartans will be the "home" team. And Carolina travels very well.
Each of the four schools gets 3,250 tickets (2,850 lower-level and 400 midlevel). Also, for the first time each school will get what the NCAA says are approximately "420 student" tickets to sell for just $7 per game.
That there will be approximately 70,000 tickets sold for the three games in Ford Field allowed the NCAA to deal out those tickets for such a cheap price. The students will be seated in courtside seating sections. *
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