We have a fresh Final Four.
But not a freshman Final Four.
When the smoke cleared and the screaming stopped after what was officially the closest and arguably the best quartet of Elite Eight games in the history of the NCAA tournament, here’s what we are left with:
One school that last visited the Final Four in 1984, and has never won a national title. Kudos on the breakthrough, Virginia.
One old standby. Say hello to Michigan State, which pops up roughly every four years as reliably as Ralph Nader running for president, with just about the same success rate. Tom Izzo won a national title in 2000, but none of five Final Four trips since then have ended in victory.
But if you want one unifying element to this Final Four, it’s this: There are four veteran teams headed to Minneapolis. This follows the pattern of 2016-18, when the Final Fours (and national champions) were dominated by experienced teams. It will be the case in 2019 as well.
In direct refutation of where the hype and attention have been centered for the last decade of college basketball, we are now in Year 4 of old guys ruling the sport.
The last of the 2018 star freshmen were dismissed after a 3-point jumper by a 22-year-old, fifth-year senior who walked on at Michigan State. Kenny Goins dispatched Duke and its transcendent one-and-done superstar, Zion Williamson, plus his three first-year sidekicks R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones.
Watching the Blue Devils seize up offensively — and fail to put the game in the hands of Williamson — showed not only their youth but Mike Krzyzewski’s inability to wallpaper over his team’s weaknesses as defenses progressively shifted toward stopping Zion. The highest-rated recruiting class in history fell short against a team that got just four of its 68 points from its freshman class.
Earlier Sunday, an Auburn team that exclusively played juniors and seniors outlasted, outwilled and outwitted a Kentucky team that started four freshmen and played five among the seven who saw extensive action. Those freshmen — all of whom ranked in the Rivals.com top 36 nationally in the Class of 2018 — combined to go 2-for-17 from 3-point range and commit nine turnovers against the Tigers.
On Saturday, Texas Tech and Gonzaga played a fierce West regional final that featured seven seniors, three juniors, five sophomores and one freshman seeing action. Tech, which had four seniors in its eight-man rotation, came through with clutch play after clutch play to pull the upset.
And later Saturday, in the game of the tournament to date, Purdue and Virginia staged a classic that featured one freshman starter, Cavaliers guard Kihei Clark. While Clark made a brilliant pass that was the smartest play of the game, he scored only two points. Virginia’s other 78 were scored by a sophomore, three juniors and a senior.
Clark was no McDonald’s All-American. He was a three-star guy rated the No. 46 point guard in the Class of ’18. The only other freshman starter in the Final Four is Aaron Henry of Michigan State, who was the No. 115 player in the class according to Rivals.
In fact, it’s possible that college basketball’s biggest stage will feature zero minutes of playing time for the entire 2018 Rivals Top 100. The only ones on the rosters are No. 50 Khavon Moore (out for the season with an injury at Texas Tech); No. 61 Marcus Bingham (has played a total of three minutes in seven postseason games for Michigan State); and No. 65 Foster Loyer (a DNP against Duke on Sunday for Michigan State, after playing just one minute Friday against LSU).
Also worth noting: The two coaches who have invested most heavily in one-and-done recruiting, Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari, each will miss the Final Four for the fourth straight season. At age 72, it’s fair to wonder whether this was K’s last, best chance to add a sixth national title to his résumé. For Cal, this team was expected to have the components of a title winner after P.J. Washington came back for his sophomore season and graduate transfer Reid Travis arrived from Stanford.
Instead, the two men with superior talent were outcoached by two men with superior experience on their roster.
With the NBA expected to alter its rules and allow players access to the league right out of high school within the next couple of years, K and Cal are approaching a crossroads. Change the recruiting philosophy, retire (Krzyzewski) or perhaps take a swing at landing an NBA job (Calipari).
The elimination of Williamson definitely deflates the buzz from this Final Four, and the ticket prices. But it doesn’t completely eliminate the star power.
If you go by Ken Pomeroy’s advanced metrics, Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver is the Player of the Year in college basketball. Michigan State’s Cassius Winston is the fourth-best player in the game. Everyone who has watched the guard tandems at Virginia (Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy) and Auburn (Jared Harper, Bryce Brown) know the entertainment value they bring to a game.
And while recent history strongly favors Michigan State and Tom Izzo, it seems quite viable that a new coach will break through and win it all. Seventeen of the 19 national championships this century have been won by a coach who had been to the Final Four before (Kevin Ollie in 2014 and Bill Self in ’08 are the exceptions). So advantage Izzo there, but Tony Bennett, Bruce Pearl and Chris Beard are regarded as some of the best in the business — it wouldn’t be a shock to see any of them win it all.
NCAA president Mark Emmert assuredly would rather hand the championship hardware to Izzo, Bennett or Beard before Pearl, whose program has been implicated in the FBI investigation of corruption in college basketball. It would feel wrong for this Final Four not to have at least one team with ties to the probe, given how many have been pulled into it in one form or another.
The other inevitability of the tournament: Some selection committee controversy arose at last. The committee largely did its job well selecting and seeding the 68 teams, but one of the clear gaffes from the very start was placing Duke and Michigan State in the same region. This was a disservice to both.
As the overall No. 1 seed, the Blue Devils should have drawn a weaker No. 2 seed — the committee had Michigan as the weakest No. 2, and the Wolverines backed that up by being blown out by No. 3 Texas Tech. And as the overall No. 6 team in the tourney, the Spartans should not have been placed in the same region as the overall No. 1.
Thus the NCAA managed to do the unthinkable: It laid a trap for the biggest draw it has ever had, placing the dangerous Spartans between Zion Williamson and the Final Four.
Now Zion is gone, along with every other prominent freshman in the nation. This may or may not be a Final Four for the ages, but — at least in college basketball years — it will be one for the aged.
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