Final Four fun facts, figures and fantasies

FinalFour20191. Newcomers — For just the third time in 40 years, two new schools have crashed the Final Four for the first time. That’s right, Auburn and Texas Tech are making their maiden appearances in the Final Four.

2. Break on through – Two years ago, Gonzaga and South Carolina made their first Final Four appearance. In 1996, both UMass and Mississippi State broke through. In 1979, Penn and Indiana State (led by Larry Bird), made it to the Final Four. None of those schools has ever been back.

3. 11 Bridesmaids — Here’s a list of 11 major schools who have never made a Final Four. In no particular order, Tennessee, Boston College, Northwestern, Alabama, Miami (Florida), Ole Miss, Xavier, Texas A&M, Missouri, TCU and Arizona State are still looking for that last dance….as are many others.

wes4. Zion-ara – Duke’s Zion Williamson is gone from the tournament, but soon to be heard from as the No.1 pick in the NBA draft.

5. Zion-like –  A player remindful of Zion is Wes Unseld, left, the former Louisville and later Baltimore Bullets standout. Both are 6’7”, although Williamson outweighs Unseld by 40 pounds. Wes was a transcendent talent out of Louisville who won both NBA Rookie of the Year and MVP in his first season, 1968-69. Only other player to do that was a guy named Wilt Chamberlain in 1959-60.

6. Chalk Men – Bracketology is not rocket science. But the constant parade of experts picking #1 and #2 seeds in each region is laughable. Show some guts, pick an upset. Geez Louise.

7. Low Seed Madness — This year, for the first time since 2012, a team seeded 7th or lower did not make the Final Four. Wichita State (9 in 2013), UConn, the eventual champion (7 in 2014) and Kentucky (8 in 2014), Michigan State (7 in 2015), Syracuse (10 in 2016), South Carolina (7 in 2017) and Loyola-Chicago (11 in 2018) all beat the odds.

8. High school link — Ty Jerome, Virginia’s standout guard, is making Iona Prep proud as tyjeromehe tries to steer the Cavaliers to their first national championship. Jerome, right, had 24 points, five rebounds and seven assists in UVA’s 80-75 OT win over Purdue in the NCAA’s South Regional final.

9. Sparty nation — Of the four finalists, only Michigan State has won an NCAA championship. The Spartans won with Magic Johnson in 1979, then Tom Izzo coached them to the 2000 title.

10. A new champion — The last time none of the Final Four participants was a previous NCAA Tournament champion was 1990. UNLV beat Duke that year. Arkansas and Georgia Tech were the other semifinalists. The same thing happened in 1989. Michigan beat Seton Hall in overtime. Illinois and Duke were also part of the group.

Sorry Dorothy, Kansas Loss Latest in Long Line of Great NCAA Basketball Tournament Upsets

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy told her little dog: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Well, Dorothy, Kansas isn’t in the NCAA tournament any more either after being kayoed  by Northern Iowa in a Cinderellian effort.  The top-seeded Jayhawks were knocked out by ninth-seeded NIU in one of the bigger surprises in NCAA history.

The Panthers became the first team to  beat a No. 1 seed in the second round since UAB and Alabama did it to Kentucky and Stanford, respectively, in 2004.

The Kansas loss ranks as one of the top upsets in the history of the tournament, but there have been many. Here are the top 10, in chronological order:

10 Great NCAA Upsets

1944:  Utah 42, Dartmouth 40 (OT) — Utah originally turned down an invitation to the NCAA tournament, but was given a second chance after losing in the NIT, and after Arkansas pulled out of the tourney after two players were injured in an automobile accident.  In those days there were no seedings and no 64-team field, just two, four-team regionals and a title game at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The Utes, shown left, were the youngest NCAA champion in history; the team’s average age was 18 years, six months. And in the midst of World War II, the team had two Japanese-American players, one on release from an internment camp. The Utes defeated Eastern champion and heavily favored Dartmouth in the championship game on a set shot by forward Herb Wilkinson in the first overtime championship game in NCAA history.  Utah became known as the Whiz Kids, Zoot Utes, and the Live Five from the Jive Drive.

1956: Canisius 79, North Carolina State 78 (4OT) — The Wolfpack was ranked second in the nation when they faced Canisius in the first round. The Golden Griffins won in four overtimes. The two teams set a record for longest NCAA Tournament game that’s been once tied (1961), but never broken. The San Francisco Dons, led by Bill Russell, won the NCAA title that year.

1966: Texas Western 72, Kentucky 65 — Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso) and its all-black starting five was a heavy underdog to Kentucky’s all white starting five, including Pat Riley, and openly racist coach, Adolph Rupp. Yet the Miners managed the win. Rupp “carried the memory of that game to his grave,” wrote his biographer, Russell Rice.

1979: Penn 72, North Carolina 71 — The Quakers beat top-rated UNC in the East Regionals and later St. John’s in the Eastern regional finals, and became what remains the last Ivy League team to make the Final Four.  Penn would be the only team to beat four higher seeded opponents to reach the Final Four until the feat was matched in 1986 by LSU and again in 2006 by George Mason. Penn was crushed in the national semis by Magic Johnson and Michigan State, which went on to beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State team for the championship.

1983: NC State 54, Houston 52 — NC State had lost 10 games during the regular season and wasn’t expected to be in the title match. The Cougars and their “Phi  Slamma Jamma” crew of Akeem (later Hakeem) “The Dream” Olajuwon and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, meanwhile, were the nation’s top-ranked team and on a 25-game winning streak. But when Lorenzo Charles slammed home an errant shot as time expired, the Wolfpack had an improbable win and coach Jim Valvano, right, went “looking for someone to hug.”

1985: Villanova 66, Georgetown 64 — Many thought the eighth-seeded Wildcats didn’t belong on the same court with Patrick Ewing and the defending champion Hoyas. Georgetown had already beaten Villanova twice during the regular season. But the Wildcats  shot a record 78.6 percent from the field, missed only one shot in the entire second half, and became the lowest-seeded team ever to win the national championship.

1991: Richmond 73, Syracuse 69 — Richmond became the first No. 15 to beat a two seed (16 seeds have never beaten a one seed in 104 tries in the tournament.) The win inspired the immortal headline: Orangemen Bitten by Spiders. Other 15-2 shockers include Santa Clara over Arizona in 1991 and Coppin State over South Carolina in 1997.

 1998: Valparaiso 70, Mississippi 69 — One of the most famous last-second shots in basketball history and the poster child for buzzer beaters was the three pointer by Bryce Drew, left, that helped 13-seed Valparaiso beat Ole Miss in a stunner.
2006: George Mason 86, Connecticut (OT) — A suburban commuter school from Fairfax, Va., that was a dicey choice to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team, the 11th seeded Patriots upset No. 1 seed UConn and reached the Final Four. The Patriots were only the second double-digit seed to make the Final Four, matching LSU’s run, also as an 11th seed, in 1986. They were the first true outsider to crash the quartet since Penn and Indiana State both got there in 1979.

2010: Northern Ohio 67, Kansas 65 — It’s rare that the top seeded team in the tournament goes out this early. But NIU guard Ali Farokhmanes, the answer to future trivia question, hit a three-pointer with 34 seconds left to ultimately doom Kansas.

Yes Dorothy, lions and tigers and bears….and Panthers too.

Related Blog: Top 10 Championship Games in Final Four History

Cardinals Rule: Louisville the Pick in NCAAs

It says here, sometime around midnight on Monday night, April 6, Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals will be celebrating a win over the Oklahoma Sooners and cutting down the nets in the Motor City.

Pitino is due to join a select group of coaches whose teams have won at least two NCAA championships. And if Louisville wins, as forecast, he’ll become the first coach to win championships with two different schools.

Pitino coached the 1996 Kentucky team that beat Syracuse to win the National title. He also led Providence to the Final Four in 1987.

UCLA’s legendary coach John Wooden is far and away the all-time leader with 10 championships (all between 1964 and 1975). The Baron, Adolph Rupp, won four titles with Kentucky. and Indiana’s Bob Knight and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski took three apiece.

Pitino would join a group of eight coaches with two championships, including Louisville’s Denny Crum, Florida’s Billy Donovan and UConn’s Jim Calhoun.

Multiple Championship Coaches

Coach                        School                     Championships

John Wooden            UCLA                      10
Adolph Rupp              Kentucky                 4
Bob Knight                  Indiana                    3
Mike Krzyzewski      Duke                         3
Dean Smith                North Carolina       2
Billy Donovan             Florida                     2
Denny Crum               Louisville                2
Ed Jucker                   Cincinnati               2
Hery Iba                       Oklahoma State   2
Jim Calhoun               UConn                     2
Phil Woolpert              San Francisco      2
Branch McCracken   Indiana                   2

The Cardinals will win because they have the most athletic team in this year’s tournament.  They’re deep, and they play 40 minutes of relentless defense.

Louisville won both the regular season and post-season tournaments in the Big East, generally regarded as college basketball’s toughest conference in years.

In addition to Louisville, the SportsLifer Final Four features top-seeded Pitt and second seeds Memphis and Oklahoma.

NCAA tournament pools are often decided in the early rounds, especially in pools where points are awarded for picking lower seeds..

Some sleepers to watch in the early rounds:

— 13th seed Mississippi State will beat both Washington and Purdue
—  Western Kentucky will beat Illinois in the annual 12-5 stunner
— 11th seeds VCU and Utah State will eliminate UCLA and Marquette respectively
— 10th seeds Maryland, USC and Minnesota will all advance to the next round

Remember, when it all comes true, you read it here first.

Holy Cross Was Once King of Hoops

The Last Amateurs, John Feinstein’s highly acclaimed chronicle of a season in the Patriot League, talks about playing for glory and honor in Division One basketball — but not for NCAA basketball championships. That’s left to the big guys, the elite.

In fact, for the vast majority of the 342 Division One combatants — the small schools of the Patriot League, the Ivy League, the Summit Conference, the mid-majors, even the long downtrodden programs in the major conferences — just getting a ticket to the Big Dance is the Mecca, that one shining moment, the  equivalent of the North Carolina or UCLA or Kentucky making the Final Four and more.

But for the College of the Holy Cross, which lost in the Patriot League championship game to American University. it wasn’t always that way.

Glory Days
Once upon a time, Holy Cross (my alma mater), a small Jesuit college located in Worcester, Mass., with undergraduate enrollment around 2,700, was the best team in the country. In 1947, the Crusaders, behind coach Doggie Julian, NCAA tournament MVP George Kaftan and a freshman point guard named Bob Cousy, right, beat Oklahoma at Madison Square Garden to win the NCAA championship.

The Crusaders finished third in the tournament the following year, and were ranked No. 1 in the 1949-1950 campaign as they won 26 straight games to start the season.

In 1954, behind Tommy Heinsohn,, Holy Cross won the NIT back in the days when that meant something. Heinsohn and Cousy, below, are Hall of Famers, two key players in the Boston Celtics dynasty of the late 50s and 60s..

As late as 1977, Holy Cross was still considered a national power. That year, HC knocked off a good Providence team twice on last-second shots by forward Chris Potter, and led top-ranked Michigan at the half in the first round of the NCAA tournament before running out of gas down the stretch,

The following year, Sports Illustrated ranked Holy Cross and freshman of the year Ronnie Perry ninth in its pre-season poll, but the Crusaders never did achieve those lofty ranks. And they’ve never come close since.

HC and the Big East
When the Big East was founded in 1979, Holy Cross could have been a charter member. Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, Syracuse and Seton Hall, all teams that HC once played on a regular basis, agreed to start the Big East, but the league needed more New England representation

However, athletic directors at Holy Cross, Boston College, Rhode Island and Connecticut agreed all four schools would remain a block. Take `em all or get none. If they couldn’t be separated, and the conference wanted the Boston market, which, of course, it needed, there would be a  big league.

“Connecticut had been very good in the Yankee Conference. Boston College and Holy Cross was a toss up; actually, Holy Cross had the better basketball tradition. But their president couldn’t be convinced,” said the first Big East commissioner, Dave Gavitt, about the league’s founding. “He felt academics would be compromised.”

DSCN1895 Former St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca spoke to me, Lou with the SportsLifer right, about these inside Big East formative dealings during a talk at the 2007 East Regionals at the Meadowlands. He told me that Holy Cross was supposed to join the Big East, but the school’s president, the Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., vetoed the move for academic reasons.

Eventually, both BC and UConn agreed to join, making the Big East a seven-team league in the inaugural 1979-80 campaign.

Villanova joined a year later in 1980. and Pittsburgh joined in 1982. Also in 1982, Penn State applied for membership, but was rejected when Syracuse cast the deciding vote against the Nittany Lions application.

Crusaders Come Close
Holy  Cross remained independent for several seasons, but eventually joined the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) to start the 1983-84 season. Seven years later, Holy Cross entered the Patriot League, and coach George Blaney led them to the league championship and an NCAA berth in 1992, the league’s second season.
Ralph Willard, like Blaney a Holy Cross grad, took over the program in 1999, and two years later the Crusaders were in the NCAAs .

Beginning in 2001 they made it to the NCAA tournament three years in a row. They gave both second-seeded Kentucky (2001) and a Marquette team that went on to the Final Four in 2003 major scares, eventually losing both contests by the identical score of 72-68.

And in 2002, the Cross nearly achieved immortality.

A number 16 seed has never won a game, excluding the play-in game, in the NCAA tournament. But Holy Cross came close before losing to Kansas, 70-59, seven years ago.

The Crusaders held a five- point lead with 12 minutes to go and were behind by only four points with one minute left before the Jayhawks finally secured the win.

Crashing and Burning

As the North Carolina Tar Heels crashed and burned Saturday night, so did my chances of finishing in the money in Comms Before the Storm, that famous NCAA pool. No consolation points for leading going into the final weekend of the tournament.

How could a team as talented as UNC fall behind 40-12 in the first half? That’s incomprehensible. When I was a sophomore at Iona Prep, we once lost a game 112-26 to Rice High School in Harlem. We considered it a moral victory when we lost to Rice 83-33 in our gym later in the season.

But unlike the Tar Heels, those defeats were understandable. The Rice team was far better….they had Dean “The Dream” Meminger, pictured left, a future All-American point guard at Marquette University and number one pick who later played in the NBA for the Knicks and the Hawks.

Al McGuire, his college coach, once said Meminger was ”quicker than 11:15 Mass at a seaside resort.”

Give credit to North Carolina for coming back in the second half and cutting the lead to four at one point. But as Bill Parcells once said, they don’t give medals for trying.

So Comms Before the Storm comes to this — if Memphis wins, the title goes to a guy named Christopher Blogger. If Kansas survives, it might as well be Dorothy.

Survive And Advance

March Madness….survive and advance….laying it all on the line, agonizing over a turnover, exulting after a long three. Sweating it out until the final buzzer.

College basketball players? Heck no, we’re talking about the pool players in NCAA tournament brackets.

It’s all about survive and advance at this point of the year, where one loss can turn those picks into pumpkins.

Quick, pop NCAA quiz. Who are the only two players to have triple doubles in the Final Four? Two very usual suspects. Scroll down for answers below.

That’s the sound you heard this weekend, the sound of brackets crashing as Duke and Georgetown were brushed aside. And there was a distinct bracket creak before top-seeded UCLA, one of the tourney’s darlings, got a last second basket to subdue Texas A&M.

Ever play the game knock out? There are several different renditions of this sport, including one where you pick one NFL team to win each week, irregardless of point spread. Once you pick a team, you can’t pick that team again. If your team loses you’re out; if they win you advance to play another week. Winner is the last one left standing. Survive and advance.

That’s what pool play is all about. Give yourself a chance going into next weekend, grab enough points in the early rounds, and hope you’ve picked the winner and that your Final Four can run the table. And even then, that might not be enough to put you in the money, honey.

Just win, baby.

The Sweet 16: Three teams apiece from the Big East (West Virginia, Villanova, and Louisville) and the Pac 10 (UCLA, Stanford and Washington State). Two apiece from the Big 12 (Kansas, Texas) and Big 10 (Michigan State, Wisconsin). Only one from the ACC, although that one is top-rated North Carolina.

Rule change: In the final minute of UConn’s stunning OT loss to San Diego on Friday, the Huskies, trying to catch up, had to commit a succession of fouls just to force San Diego to the free throw line. In effect, because of the team foul rule, UConn was being penalized for avoiding fouls throughout the second half. In this instance, why not give the team committing the deliberate foul the option of sending the other team to the line instead of having to commit a series of fouls. Otherwise, they’re being penalized for not being penalized.

Not to make excuses for UConn, they were listless not only against San Diego but in their brief appearance in the Big East tournament.

Trivia Answer: Oscar Roberston (39 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists) of Cincinnati against Louisville in 1959 and Magic Johnson (29 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) of Michigan State against Penn in 1979

Gotta Love The Drake….

….that is if you had Western Kentucky in your NCAA brackets….or if you knew The Drake before he broke up with the Drakette. Best game of the tournament so far, the Hilltoppers blow a 16-point lead with eight minutes to go in regulation, then come back to best Drake on an outrageous three-pointer at the buzzer by Ty Rogers in overtime, 101-99.

Rogers joins one-shot legends such as Bryce Drew, Tate George and Tyrus Edney — not to mention Christian Laettner, Lorenzo Charles and Keith Smart — who will forever be remembered for a single swish in time.

Gotta love the Drake.

Gosh, I miss Al McGuire, New Yorker, coach of 1977 NCAA champion Marquette, basketball commentator. McGuire once said: “My rule was I wouldn’t recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house. That’s not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk.”

Gotta love cracked sidewalks.

And for the upset of the tournament, how about San Diego beating the UConn Huskies on a last-second basket by De’Jon Jackson in OT, 70-69. San Diego is nicknamed the Toreros.

Gotta love the Toreros.

Almost as shocking was Siena’s 83-62 victory over Vanderbilit, another 4-13 shocker. Although CBS-TV Channel 2 in New York televised everything but the Saints. Hey CBS, last time I looked Albany was still in New York. Yeah, lots of interest here in Mississippi State-Oregon.

Gotta love the Saints

Western Kentucky, San Diego, Siena and lastly Villanova made it a clean sweep in Tampa –four games, four upsets, four lower seeds advance.

Gotta love Tampa.

You knew that Notre Dame’s Austin Carr held the all-time, single game NCAA tournament scoring record with 61 against Ohio University in 1970 right? In fact, Carr has four of the top nine scoring performances of all time — 61, 52 twice and 47 — in tournament history

Gotta love Austin Carr.

Comms Before the Storm: A Tough Test

Enter at your own risk, At the center of the March Madness maelstrom, it’s the toughest test in America. The law boards, your first driver’s test or that final exam in quantum physics are cupcakes compared to this exercise.

It’s “Comms Before the Storm,” the IBM communications NCAA basketball pool.

One year ago, I picked the Final Four, and had Florida beating Ohio State for the championship. That’s precisely what happened. Heck, I even went to the Final Four in Atlanta to bear witness to my prognostic abilities live and in person at the Georgia Dome.

So how much did I win? Nothing. Nada. Finished out of the money. Didn’t even get a mention in the wrap-up story.

Who am I picking this year? I’ll let you know after I consult my crystal ball, do my homework and fill out my brackets.

Like I said, toughest test in America. It’s awesome baby.