That would be my Final Four predictions. I thought I was fairly safe going all chalk with Duke, Arizona, Kansas and UCLA. Guess not. But I’ve never been very good at this prediction business.
So what can I can I tell you about this upcoming Final Four that you don’t already know? It’s Roy Williams’ ninth, but you probably already knew that. The other three are all first-timers, or, as the Brits would say, debutants. It’s been a long road for Oregon’s Dana Altman, this being his 28th season. For Mark Few it’s a final vindication of a spectacular coaching career that should send him some day to Springfield where he can make a Hall of Fame acceptance speech. He is 18-for-18 in NCAA tournament appearances since succeeding Don Monson for the 1999-2000 season, but this is Gonzaga’s first time past the Elite Eight. Frank Martin? Or, should we say Francisco Jose Martin? H’s only had to wait 10 years for this great national exposure. He has a great back story of being a second-generation Cuban-American raised by a resilient single mom. plus a high school coaching career that brought him state titles and heaps of scorn over alleged recruiting improprieties. And then I find out he spent four years under my nose as an assistant at Northeastern and I never met him. My bad. I will say he has carried himself magnificently this week.
By the way, Roy’s lifetime record ain’t bad, either. How does 814-216 (.790) sound?
I have nothing against Carolina, Oregon or South Carolina, but I shall root unabashedly for Gonzaga. I just think that what Few has accomplished at that school is one of the great coaching achievements of all-time, and I would be really cool if that institution could get one title for a deserving school and fan base. The Few numbers really are staggering. When the Bulldogs take the floor on Saturday his coaching record will stand at 501-118, which is a gaudy .818 winning percentage. The Zags have won 20 or more every year of his tenure.
For those of you keeping score at home, Gonzaga is bidding to become the eighth Catholic university to win the NCAA title. They are the 15th Catholic school to reach the stage we now know as the Final Four. And they are the seventh Jesuit school to do so. This is really apropos of nothing, except that I was hunting for something fresh to impress you with.
OK, I can’t leave you hanging: the seven Catholic school champs are San Francisco (Jesuit), Villanova, Georgetown (Jesuit), Holy Cross, LaSalle, Loyola of Chicago (Jesuit) and Marquette (Jesuit). The Final Four participants are St. John’s, St. Joe’s (Jesuit), St. Bonaventure, Providence, Seton Hall, Seattle (Jesuit) and, oh yes, Notre Dame. Perhaps this info will come in handy at your next cocktail party.
I’m sure it has seemed like a very long 360-some odd days for Williams and his returning players since their last trip to the Final Four. They will forever carry around the dual memories of the Marcus Paige double-clutch three that appeared to have sent them into overtime in the championship game and the answering three-pointer by Kris Jenkins that wiped the smiles off Tarheel faces everywhere and placed them on the faces of Villanova Wildcats the world over. So there’s no doubt Carolina will be supremely motivated, perhaps more than the other three schools put together. Unfinished Business is a powerful motivator.
But I don’t know that for sure, and you don’t, either. Surely, Gonzaga, with its 36-1 record and the heady feeling of having been ranked number one earlier in the season, has a very strong sense of purpose. The Zags carry the weight of 21st century history with them. Oregon likewise expected big things for this season. I was a bit surprised when I hauled out my Blue Ribbon Magazine prior to the tournament and was reminded that the greatest pre-season basketball mag of all-time picked the Ducks number 2 (behind Duke). The Zags were #16. And yet I think Oregon may already feel, you know, fulfilled.
Of course, with regard to South Carolina, no one would ever cop to a “We are just happy to be here” attitude at a Final Four, but if ever there was a team that has already given itself, its coach and its fans far more than they could possibly have imagined, it is this 26-10 South Carolina team some thought was undeserving of a tournament bid to begin with. Come to think about it, once upon a time a team from not too far away from Columbia, South Carolina, lurched into the tournament and then won six extraordinary games. By the way, has Jimmy V found somebody to hug yet? So goofy things can happen, especially when you have a player such as SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell on your side.
I’m not officially picking a winner, but I will rank the teams in logical order of Best Chance To Win. 1. North Carolina. 2. Gonzaga. 3. Oregon. 4. South Carolina. But it’s actually 2. Gonzaga and 2A Oregon. That’s a tough call.
But why should you listen to a guy who was 0-for-4?
One more thing: I have to say it: Gonzaga’s mantra should be “The Few, The Proud.” C’mon. How many chances will you get for something like this?