Final Four: Elites, underdog in sea of green

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

DETROIT – The 1988 Final Four was played at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo., a 39-mile drive from the campus of the University of Kansas. It was the last time a Final Four team enjoyed a significant home crowd advantage (Duke was in the 1994 Final Four in Charlotte, N.C., but the crowd wasn't appreciably pro-Blue Devil). KU rode that advantage and the inspired play of Danny Manning to win the national title.

The drive from Ford Field here to the East Lansing campus of Michigan State is greater – 88 miles – but the advantage of playing in-state should be greater, too. Ford Field is configured to seat 78,000, the largest ever for this event. MSU isn't just an easy drive away; Detroit is home to its largest alumni base. There is no shortage of ticket buyers.

Adding to the dynamic is the economic climate that has discouraged neutral fans from traveling to the event, and has forced a significant cutback on corporate tickets. Detroit isn't the kind of exotic location that is going to attract extra fans anyway.

It seemed reasonable to think a higher percentage of locals were going to attend this Final Four even before they had a team to root on.

The place is going to look really, really green; maybe 40,000-plus green.

What that does for State remains to be seen. The Spartans are an emotional club led by an emotional coach and the team itself believes having the Final Four played under those circumstances will help. Only area ticket brokers are more excited about this development than the Spartans.

"It's a home game," said guard Kalin Lucas, who grew up about 10 minutes from the stadium.

It's certainly an added challenge for their semifinal opponent, Connecticut. (We're sure State fans won't remind the Huskies they're currently under NCAA investigation for major rules violations). Normally the Final Four is about as neutral of an environment as you can get.

The good news for UConn is that Michigan State has twice played in Ford Field and lost both times – to Kentucky in 2003 and North Carolina in December.

If you have a better team, the place doesn't matter. Oh, and UConn went 11-1 on the road this past regular season. If there was ever a team that isn't going to be intimidated by a big crowd it's this collection of tough Huskies.

UConn is making its third Final Four appearance and has won it all in both previous trips. This was a season Jim Calhoun was building for, running out a deep, experienced and talented roster that was able to sustain some critical losses and push forward. They bulldozed the West Region, winning with offense and defense and a host of different stars.

Whoever is beating the Huskies is going to have to drive a stake through their heart.

The downside is that not since UNLV in 1991 has a team entered the Final Four in the throes of such a prominent NCAA investigation. It's a killjoy for the UConn fans who care about such things, although the players are unlikely to be concerned about the speculation of sanctions.

The focus on UConn's compliance problems and Michigan State's proximity may have overshadowed the reality that the team that everyone thought during the preseason would win the national championship has looked better than ever the last two weeks.

North Carolina breezed through the South Region without experiencing a single nervous, late-game possession. The destructions were so thorough that the Tar Heels have garnered relatively minimal attention, no small feat for a storied program making its record 18th Final Four appearance.

"They're not a good team, they're a great team," said Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel after a 72-60 loss to the Heels on Sunday. "They have so many weapons."

Carolina reached the semifinals a year ago before losing to eventual champion Kansas. Everyone agreed to return for another run at a title and while there have been four losses, the strength of this team is obvious. The Tar Heels beat the Sooners handily despite a low-key night from stars Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington, who each finished with single-digit points.

"If you had given me those stats before the game, I'd have thought it was going to be a tough afternoon," coach Roy Williams said.

Turns out it was no problem for the Heels.

Waiting for them is the "underdog" of the event, Villanova, which enters as a third seed and with the only coach, Jay Wright, who hasn't already won a national title. Carolina shouldn't take this crew lightly though, not after it blew out Duke in the Sweet 16 in a manner UNC could only wish.

The Wildcats are making their first Final Four appearance since 1985, the year they stunned college basketball by winning the national title as an eight seed, the lowest in the event's history.

Coming out of the rugged Big East, which placed four teams in the Elite Eight and two in the Final Four, they've proven they can play with anyone. Does that mean even Carolina?

"We've got four seniors and we've got Scottie Reynolds," Wright said, citing his star guard who made the game-winning, final-second floater against Pitt that will go down in history. "We have great players, we really do. And you saw it. A lot of guys making big-time plays."

They'll have to make them to beat the Tar Heels.

The Heels enter college basketball's final weekend in the same role as the season's first – the favorite. According to The Associated Press, the Las Vegas Hilton has UNC at 5-6 odds, UConn at 5-2, MSU at 5-1 and 'Nova at 8-1.

Carolina can only hope to channel that December game in Ford Field where it blew out State 98-63. Nothing will be the same, of course. The facility was a third full that night, a dark December evening. This will be the showcase event, jammed to the rafters. UConn and Villanova weren't here then. Michigan State is far better.

So too is North Carolina though, which is saying something.

"You didn't see our real team tonight, but our real team might have lost by 20," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "They're definitely one of the best teams I've seen in my 25 years at Michigan State."

"I'll be back," Roy Williams promised that night. "And I hope my team is with me."

They will be, just as expected.

So too will be a powerhouse program fighting for its reputation, a hot team trying to channel the tourney glory of a generation ago and a sea of green looking to cheer a repeat of a local underdog clipping the nets.

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