A few nuggets and notes to enhance your Final Four experience.
• Just three months after the SEC was finally toppled from college football’s throne, Florida and Kentucky aim to give us college basketball’s first all-SEC championship game. If coaching pedigree has anything to do with it, the Gators and Wildcats seem like locks for the Monday-night tilt. Florida’s Billy Donovan is making his fourth trip to the Final Four and Kentucky’s John Calipari his fifth. (Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan are first-timers.) The last time two members of the same league faced each other for the title was 1988, when Kansas beat Oklahoma in a battle of Big 8 powers.
• If you ask me, Donovan is the gold standard among current coaches. There are four components that a good coach has to master to be called great: recruiting, game management, media relations, and image. If you were to grade Donovan on each of these, how could he be given less than an A for any category? At no time during Florida’s two games at FedExForum last week did you get the sense the Gators weren’t in control. Star guard Scottie Wilbekin — the SEC’s Player of the Year — struggled in the first half of the semifinal game against UCLA, only to hit three key shots to help the Gators separate in the second half. He then scored 23 points and didn’t commit a turnover in 38 minutes of the final to earn the regional’s MVP award. If your memory’s long enough, this sounds a lot like a Providence point guard who led his Friars to the 1987 Final Four: Billy Donovan.
• Calipari has mastered a flawed system in ways none of his contemporaries can claim. As long as the NBA is going to mandate players spend a year in limbo between high school graduation and entering the draft, Calipari is going to recruit the best of those players to be Wildcats. No one should be surprised that NBA-bound players like Julius Randle, James Young, and the Harrison twins — all Kentucky freshmen — are marching toward a shining moment. If there’s any surprise, it’s that it took more than three months (and 10 losses) for this season’s one-year wonders to find cohesion on the court. Should Kentucky — the Midwest region’s 8th seed — win the championship, it will match the 1985 Villanova Wildcats as the lowest seed ever to cut down the nets. And it will feel as predictable as sunrise.
• It’s hard to fit a glass slipper on a UConn program that won the national title just three years ago. And Kentucky will play Cinderella the day Calipari plays Hamlet. But together, the 7th-seeded Huskies and Wildcats give the Final Four a pair of sub-6 seeds for only the third time since seeding was introduced in 1979. In 2000, a pair of 8-seeds reached the Final Four (North Carolina and Wisconsin) and in 2011 an 8-seed (Butler) and 11-seed (VCU) played each other in the national semifinals. None of these teams raised the trophy.
• A 30-something coach takes over a storied program just two seasons after his high-profile predecessor took that program to the Final Four. Where have we Memphians heard Kevin Ollie’s story before? The UConn coach’s run to the Final Four will not help Memphis Tiger fans be more patient with Josh Pastner. Needless to say, Pastner has yet to suit up a Shabazz Napier, even with multiple top-10 recruiting classes. With Louisville gone to the ACC, a new standard for excellence has been established in the American Athletic Conference. The Memphis Tigers (and not incidentally, their coach) will get at least two chances to measure themselves every winter.
• I’d like to offer one final salute to the Dayton Flyers, runners-up to Florida in the South regional. (They had me with the “Let’s Go Flyers!” chants Thursday night.) There’s no way FedExForum sees 14,000 fans (for the semis) or 15,000 (for Saturday’s championship) without the traveling party from the Buckeye state. And the Flyer pep band took top honors, quite a challenge with Stanford’s Tree on the loose for two hours Thursday. They even played the University of Memphis fight song. Class act, and welcome guests. Hope we see them again.