For these tortured South teams, Final Four deliverance is only two wins away

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Society of South Regional Suffering is hereby called to order.

All of you outfitted in shades of orange or old gold and black, gather 'round. The folks in electric green and yellow, you're dismissed. This group meeting is exclusively for those fully steeped in March Madness misery.

Top seed Virginia, second seed Tennessee and third seed Purdue have arrived here in anticipation of emancipation. They yearn to be free from the bonds of Final Four futility that have shackled their programs for a bitterly long time — since 1984 for the Cavaliers, since 1980 for the Boilermakers, and, in the case of the Volunteers, since forever.

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Oregon, having made the Final Four two years ago and wandering in with a No. 12 seed, is the charmed member of an otherwise beleaguered quartet. There is no scar tissue built up over decades for the folks from Eugene. Nobody feels sorry for the Ducks, and nobody expects them to win.

But the other three fan bases? Buddy, they can tell some tales of woe.

At Purdue, they'll tell you about the Robbie Hummel knee injury in late February 2010, which derailed the No. 3 team in America during the stretch run to the NCAA tournament. Without their No. 2 scorer and rebounder, the Boilermakers were punched out by eventual national champion Duke in the Sweet 16.

Or they'll tell you about the '88 team that finished the regular season 27-3 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. Those Boilers, armed with a No. 1 seed, committed two turnovers in the final 44 seconds and were shocked in the Sweet 16 by Kansas State, a team they had routed by 29 points earlier in the season.

At Virginia, they'll tell you (through clenched teeth) about the current five-year streak of March catastrophes. They'll tell you about 143 victories in that time — none of them in a regional final, and only one time even advancing that far. You might have to be especially persistent to get them to tell you about UMBC.

Virginia guard Kyle Guy (5) gives comfort to Isaiah Wilkins (21) in the final minute of UMBC's upset of the University of Virginia in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament. (Getty)
Virginia guard Kyle Guy (5) gives comfort to Isaiah Wilkins (21) in the final minute of UMBC's upset of the University of Virginia in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament. (Getty)

Or they'll tell you about the grand visions that went unfulfilled with Ralph Sampson. He was the most celebrated recruit in school history — and at the time perhaps the most celebrated recruit in college basketball history. The 7-foot-4 center took the Cavs to the 1981 Final Four as a sophomore, where they lost to Atlantic Coast Conference rival North Carolina. The next two seasons ended with crushing losses short of the Promised Land. The worst: a 1983 regional final loss to North Carolina State, which barely wobbled into the tournament and wound up winning it on the most famous and fortuitous airball in NCAA history. A month earlier, Virginia fans had serenaded the Wolfpack with chants of "NIT!" after beating them in Charlottesville.

In the first year after Ralph, Virginia unexpectedly made the Final Four in something of a karmic balancing of the scales. It hasn't been since.

At Tennessee, they'll tell you about a pair of free throws in the final seconds of the 2010 Midwest regional final — the one missed by Volunteers guard Scotty Hopson with 12 seconds left and a chance to take the lead on Michigan State, and the one made by the Spartans' Raymar Morgan with 1.8 left to win the game. They'll tell you about the foul call that put Morgan on the line, too.

Or they'll tell you about the "Ernie and Bernie Show" of the 1970s that yielded so many wins — none of them in the Big Dance. The 1976 Vols were ranked No. 9 in the country but stunned in the first round by VMI. The '77 Vols were ranked No. 7 but drew a tough opening-round matchup against Syracuse and lost in overtime. And that was that for Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King, one of the most celebrated duos in the history of the game.

The old fans have lived all the heartbreaks, ancient and recent. The young ones have heard all the stories from days of yore.

Yet they keep coming back, souls damaged but hopes raised, this year as much as ever.

"We've been very good through the years, but we obviously haven't been to a Final Four," said Purdue coach Matt Painter. "I think it would be great, not just for our fans but also our former players. We have a lot of guys who have sacrificed through the years and had really, really good seasons, but you haven't been able to put that cherry on the top and get to Final Four. I think that would be great for a lot of people that have Purdue blood in them."

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes has been to a Final Four, at Texas in 2003. His players and the Big Orange fans are another story.

"They know where they are," Barnes said. "It's something that they watched throughout their life and they know it. They know there are 16 teams left in this tournament."

Virginia coach Tony Bennett brings the biggest burden into Louisville. This is his fourth NCAA tourney No. 1 seed, and the other three flamed out spectacularly — none moreso than last year's historic gag against UMBC. Just getting past that first round was a bit cathartic for Virginia.

"And here we are," Bennett said. "I think, certainly, there's an enjoyment and a freedom in it, but there's also a desire to play well and advance again.

"Burdened, unburdened, doesn't really matter in my opinion. You just step up to the challenge that's there. You have joy in it, you have focus in it, you've got to be able to look both victory and defeat in the eye and say it's a possibility and go forward. … Obviously, everyone here is desperate to advance."

For three of the four programs in the Society of South Region Suffering, the desperation runs decades deep. But deliverance is two games away.


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