No American team sport is as exclusive as college basketball. Say what you will about the “wildly unpredictable” NCAA tournament, no champion is as easy to forecast as the survivor of March Madness. (I love the now-copyrighted title for this event. Forget the fact that the nets at the Final Four are actually cut down in April.) If it’s not Kentucky this year, it’s certainly Duke. Or North Carolina. Or for those years when an old-school power doesn’t achieve dominant status ... it’s Connecticut.
At the beginning of every college hoops season, more than 300 teams are technically eligible to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship, three times the number in contention for the FBS football title. With such a field, you’d figure entry in the record book as champion would be once-in-a-generation at best, once-in-a-lifetime for most programs. Instead, “One Shining Moment” has become a soundtrack familiar only to those with the right jacket, proper door code, and a retina scan that proves blue-blood status. Over the course of two decades, three percent of the college-basketball universe has won a national title. For longer odds of winning a championship, you’d have to be a member — or fan — of the Chicago Cubs. (I know. This is the year.)
Look at the last 20 champions. It’s actually a list of just 11 programs, as UConn (4), Kentucky (3), Duke (3), North Carolina (2), and Florida (2) have won multiple titles since 1996. If you’re looking for an outlier — think Marquette in 1977 — you won’t find one, with the possible exception (if ironic) of Florida, the only team in this period to win back-to-back titles (in 2006 and ’07). The Gators rose to greatness under coach Billy Donovan and won championships behind future NBA stars Joakim Noah and Al Horford. But aside from a return to the Final Four in 2014, Florida hasn’t achieved that retina-scan status and with Donovan now in the NBA, the Gators may soon be just another SEC program.
From 1988 through 2012 — a 25-year period — no Final Four was played without one of the following programs in the mix: North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and/or UCLA. The streak ended in 2013, but there was Louisville (blue blood) and the next year, UConn. Relatively new to their blue-blood status, the Huskies won a fourth championship since 1999. Kentucky returned to the Final Four in 2014 (and ’15), Duke won the title last year, and now this weekend we get to see North Carolina, appearing in its record 19th Final Four (but first since 2009!).
Our only chance for a legitimate championship surprise will be the winner of the Oklahoma-Villanova semifinal. Don’t let Syracuse — a 10 seed! — fool you. Jim Boeheim’s squad is a blue-blood in orange clothing, appearing in a fifth Final Four under a coach who served a nine-game suspension to start the season (for a decade of impropriety under his watch).
The Wildcats are descendants of the 1985 team that upset mighty Georgetown (after beating Memphis State in the national semifinals) and the Sooners — get this — have never won a national championship in basketball. There will be no bigger star in Houston than Oklahoma’s All-America guard Buddy Hield. The senior Bahamian has averaged 29.2 points in the Sooners’ four-game tournament run and dropped 37 on Oregon in the West Regional final. (Hield opened the season by scoring 30 points at FedExForum in a win over Memphis.}
Here’s hoping this year’s Final Four becomes a Buddy movie, something different from anything we’ve seen before. It’s surely nice to occupy that three-percent luxury loft in college basketball’s tower of success. But there’s a lot to see — and cheer — in that other 97 percent.