Those names are as comfortable and familiar as they come for college basketball fans. They evoke years of established excellence, nets being cut down, mascots and jerseys that are the faces of the sport. Those four teams have often been the bearers of the NCAA championship mantle and are as much a fixture of the game as the paint and the 3-point line.
But somehow, among the tradition and power that so pleases the purists and the alumni, having Louisville, Kentucky, Ohio State and Kansas as the teams vying for this year’s title is less a reason to love the Final Four than to hate it.
Sure, watching Butler put up brick after brick in the title game over the last two years has been painful, but it’s also been amazing to see the overachieving Bulldogs make it so far. Shaka Smart‘s spirited Virginia Commonwealth team was a rush as it won again and again against a tournament full of major conference teams that may have tried to overlook their upstart opponent. Butler and VCU were but two of the many excellent teams — teams, now, complete with coaches who develop their players, players who play together, and even players who graduate — packing the tournament throughout the last few years and making each round an intrigue and a joy.
But this year, it’s back to the typical. It’s hard to imagine a Final Four more full of traditional powerhouses (although Duke, North Carolina, UCLA and Connecticut would be acceptable alternatives). Altogether, this year’s teams have been to 48 Final Fours, with Louisville’s ninth appearance being the lowest representation among the participants.
Now, success is nothing to scoff at, considering that’s why teams play. There’s no honor in being a Rudy when you have the talent to win it all. But the fiber of this year’s Final Four teams is what seems to be lacking.
From John Calipari‘s instant-NBA roster to a Kansas team loaded with talent, this year’s teams give less of an aura of a bunch of kids working together to achieve greatness they never could on their own than an intramural match at an AAU convention, where the most talented players from each team count off into groups for an exhibition before moving on to greater goals. Some of these Final Four teams are so full of talent that you wonder how they could have ever lost a game — and that’s where the disappointment lies: not in these talented teams achieving greatness, but in these teams looking like they gathered so much talent just to make sure they wouldn’t miss being great.
People’s opinions on whether this year is a great Final Four or a lacking one depend mostly on their view of the game. Some fans love the raw amount of talent being shuffled to a few teams, with marquee coaches that skate through the regular season and offer high-quality matchups late in the tournament. For them, this year’s games are great.
But for the college basketball loyalists — the ones who still believe in players going to classes, some guys sticking around until graduation, and coaches who are as invested in their boys as they would be in their own sons, it’s a different story. For them, this year smells a lot like the NBA, including a flashily dressed, tough-riding coach who failed in the NBA (Rick Pitino) and a slick-haired leader who doesn’t mind that that’s where his players would rather be (Calipari).
(And then there’s the discussion of what these guys are getting paid.)
College basketball fans love college basketball because it’s a different kind of basketball. They can find huge guys, isolation plays, and jam after jam in the NBA. But when they want team play, zones, sets geared toward 3-point shooting, players hugging their coaches and one shining moment, college basketball has always offered a superior product than any other form of the sport.
No, this year’s tournament won’t be the end of college basketball as we know it, as some have suggested, and it’s certainly still full of great matchups and intriguing storylines. But for the college basketball fans still in love with the sepia-toned images of James Naismith or John Wooden — those that perk up every time the TV flashes to Jimmy Valvano running down the floor with his arms out — this may not be the year for them.