When No. 15 Norfolk State knocked off No. 2 Missouri 86-84 in the second round of this year's NCAA tournament, everyone outside of Columbia, Mo., cheered. Everyone outside of Durham, N.C., cheered even louder when No. 15 Lehigh knocked off No. 2 Duke later that day.
But when the dust settled Sunday and the NCAA Tournament semifinal games were set, the last four teams standing were all from power conferences: No. 4 Louisville out of the Big East (or whatever it's called these days); No. 2 Ohio State from the Big Ten; Big 12 champ Kansas, a No. 2 seed; and the SEC's Kentucky, the tournament's top overall seed.
And, quite frankly, the tournament is better for it.
As much fun as it is to root for upsets early, having four powerhouse programs and talent-laden teams in the Final Four makes for better and more exciting basketball.
One of the problems created by the NBA age limit rule is that the constant turnover has depleted the quality of college hoops, particularly at the top. That issue has been especially apparent the past two years, when the Final Fours showcased just three combined lottery picks (Butler's Gordon Hayward in 2010, Kentucky's Brandon Knight and UConn's Kemba Walker in '11).
Consequently, neither title game was all that exciting.
Duke won 61-59 in 2010, while UConn took home the 2011 title 53-41 in a game lauded by many as the worst national championship of all time.
"It's almost like these two teams are competing to see which can play worse," CBS analyst Seth Davis said at halftime, according to a New York Times article from April 2011. "This is a very bad showcase for a national championship game for college basketball."
The 94 combined points was the lowest scoring output since N.C. State's 54-52 win in 1983 — before the shot clock and 3-pointer were invented and the dunk was reinstated from its 1976 ban, according to the Times article. Butler's 18.8 percent shooting for the game was also the worst ever for a final.
The 2010 national championship featured a better finish — Hayward narrowly missed a half-court shot at the buzzer that would have given Butler a one-point win — but the game itself wasn't much prettier.
Duke scored 61 points on 44.2 percent shooting, compared to the fifth-seeded Bulldogs' 59 on 34.5 percent shooting.
According to the Times article, from 1980 to 2010, the average score for the winning team in the title game was 76 — 15 points higher than Duke's total in 2010, and 23 points higher than what UConn scored in 2011.
Butler's average of 50 points, meanwhile, was 18 less than the average score of the losing team during that same time span.
The 2012 Final Four will feature a far different theme than the Cinderella-dominated storylines of 2010 and '11. In terms of talent, it is arguably the most loaded Final Four since 2008, when all four No. 1 seeds (Kansas, North Carolina, Memphis and UCLA) made it to the national semifinals.
Not coincidentally, the title game that year was a thriller. Kansas' Mario Chalmers hit a late 3-pointer to send the game into overtime, and the Jayhawks eventually knocked off Derrick Rose and John Calipari's Memphis squad, 75-68.
While not quite as talented, this year's Final Four will showcase four preseason Top 10 teams, all of which are littered with potential NBA players. It will also include the latest chapter of the Louisville-Kentucky (and Calipari-Rick Pitino rivalry) and a battle of All-American big men and potential lottery picks Jared Sullinger and Thomas Robinson. Oh, and at the end of it, there's the possibility of a championship matchup between "Blue Blood" schools Kentucky and Kansas.
So no, there isn't a likeable underdog for casual fans to root for like a Butler, a VCU or a George Mason. But this year's Final Four might be the best in years because of it.
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