Wednesday, 4 a.m.
It has gotten younger. It has gotten bigger. It has gotten louder.
And still, heaven loves the Final Four.
The games are so good, and the moments are so plentiful, that most of us don't notice that, really, the talent isn't what it once was. How could it be? So many freshmen are doing the one-and-done deal before they ever locate the campus library. What was once huge arenas have grown into football stadiums.
What was once a few coaches hanging around outside the locker room has turned into massive press conferences.
And still, heaven loves the the Final Four, Williams, Krzyzewski, Izzo and all.
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I came to the Final Four kind of late in my career. I didn't cover one until 1994, but I ended up at 12 of them over the next 20 years. I stood outside of a hotel in Detroit, taunting Canada (nearby Windsor) by waving real bacon at them. I saw Florida's wonder kids. I saw tough guy Jim Calhoun will his way to three titles. I saw Nolan Richardson cry out for attention, and then earn it.
You know the best thing about covering a Final Four? It's the games that come before it. Those were the games that gave me audience to Donovan, to Krzyzewski, to John Chaney, to Skip Prosser, to Nolan Richardson, to Tom Izzo. You can count on two things with a college basketball coach: Coffee and great stories. You fall in love with teams, only to see them bow out. You become impressed with coaches, only to see them dance in the spotlight.
A brief look back:
1994: Arkansas 76, Duke 72: This was the one that ticked off my wife. I had just returned from the winter Olympics, which is three weeks of being gone. Suddenly, Lon Kruger's whiz-kids were winning. They didn't win it, though. Richardson shook the media by the lapels, pointing out that white coaches were known by nicknames like “the General.” He had a point. Beating Duke helped make it.
1999: UConn 77, Duke 74: The Final Four in St. Pete was a bit of a mess, what with the scoreboards on the fritz and water in the locker rooms at Tropicana Field. The Huskies, behind Richard Hamilton and Kalid El-Amin, pulled off the upset over the supremely talented Blue Devils, who won 37 games. Uconn was a 9 ½ point underdog. My memory? Times employees had a bunch of those dummy newspapers for players to hold up: One said UConn wins, one said Duke wins. The workers were threatened with their jobs if the wrong one was displayed. The bosses were kidding. I think.
2000: Michigan State 89, Florida 76: This was the game that put Billy Donovan on the map. Yes, the Spartans won with Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson, but that team of Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller set up the Gators' great run.
2001: Duke 82, Arizona 72: Shane Battier played for Duke, which is hated on a national scale. Still, he was one of the coolest kids to ever play in the NCAAs, a squeaky clean kid who was so goody-goody he drove people crazy. I remember Lute Olson, who coached despite losing his wife to cancer earlier in the season.
2002: Maryland 64, Indiana 52: For all the talk that the Hoosiers were finally back, they weren't, really. Instead, Maryland made the world Fear the Turtle. Juan Dixon scored 18 to lead Maryland to the title.
2004: UConn 82, Georgia Tech 73: On Saturday, Calhoun was denied entrance into the Hall of Fame. On Monday, he kicked the doors in. Calhoun's team won a fairly easy game behind 24 points by Emeka Okafor.
2007: Florida 84, Ohio State 75: Florida's fabulous kids might have been the biggest dynasty since UCLA. They won back-to-back titles, and their players could have returned for a third. Billy Donovan coached a great game in the finals. The team left Greg Oden alone and guarded the perimeter. It worked wonderfully for the Gators.
2009: North Carolina 89, Michigan State 72: The worst prediction of my newspaper career, without a doubt, was when I didn't think North Carolina had enough to win the national title. Instead, I underestimated how much improvement Roy Williams could get out of his team in a week. I wasn't making that mistake again. I picked Carolina to beat Michigan State, even in Detroit. They did. I'm still a leper in Carolina.
2011: UConn 53, Butler 41: This time, Calhoun was treated like Richard Nixon on his way to a title. Calhoun supposedly knew nothing about the illegal recruitment of Nate Miles, and he spent the entire championship defending himself. In the end, he won another title.
2012: Kentucky 67, Kansas 59: The word hadn't quite decided whether John Calipari was a genius or a crook with his one-and-done recruiting tactics. But you had to admit Calipari did it better than anyone else. He hasn't won one since, but Anthony Davis and the boys were pretty darned good.
2013: Louisville 82, Michigan 76: Before his most recent controversy, Rick Pitino came across as an elder statesman for the game. He guided his Cardinals past Trey Burke and the Wolverines. Pitino was elected to the Hall of Fame before the game. After the game, Pitino got a tattoo, as he promised his players.
2014: UConn 60, Kentucky 54: After a year on probation, UConn won another one. This time, the coach was Kevin Ollie. The Huskies played a dogged defense, beating Florida in the semis on their way to another title. As rich as the teams' histories are, UConn was seeded No. 7 and Kentucky No. 8.