Commentary

Something to prove, something to gain

The historical benefits of a national title from four different perspectives

Updated: April 4, 2009, 2:48 AM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Four teams. Four legacies at stake.

Only one can be maximized here.

[+] EnlargeTyler Hansbrough
Bob Donnan/US PresswireTyler Hansbrough has one last chance to cement his college basketball legacy.

For North Carolina, the legacy in the balance is Tyler Hansbrough's. The leading scorer in Atlantic Coast Conference history is, at present, all numbers and no Final Four nets.

Yes, the Tar Heels have won three conference regular-season titles and two tournament titles in Hansbrough's four seasons. And 112 games. Those totals are significant.

But at Carolina the measuring stick for greatness is NCAA titles. They put guys like James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan, Sean May, Raymond Felton, Donald Williams, Eric Montross and Lennie Rosenbluth in a different realm from the multitudinous other greats in school history. Without that ultimate validation point, Hansbrough is just another very good player.

He came close last year, leading the Heels into the Final Four in San Antonio. But they were mauled from the opening tip by Kansas, falling behind 40-12 at one point before rallying in the second half, then sagging again and losing by 18.

"One thing we learned from last year is, you have to be ready to play when you come out," Hansbrough said. "I think maybe we were a little tight because we weren't used to being on the big stage like a Final Four.

"Now I guess we'll be more prepared."

Hansbrough has won just about every individual award they give out in college hoops. But if he wants to separate himself from Ralph Sampson and J.J. Redick and Phil Ford -- ACC stars who could never win the last game of the season -- he needs a national championship.

For Villanova, the legacy in the balance is the program's. The Wildcats are, historically, a one-hit wonder: pitchers of the perfect game 24 years ago. They're more a historical footnote than a heavyweight basketball school.

[+] EnlargeVillanova
AP ImagesTwo wins this weekend in Detroit would give Villanova another storied chapter in its history.

But now there is the chance to talk about something other than 78 percent from the field and slaying Goliath Georgetown in 1985 and point guard Gary McLain's cocaine use. There is an enduring, charming nostalgia that clings to less prestigious schools that had lightning-in-a-bottle championship seasons -- Marquette, UTEP and Loyola know the feeling.

But eventually the story line needs updating, or it can become a bit sad and stale. You can rehash the same stories only so many times.

Villanova was at that point.

With two victories here, Nova has the chance to move out of little-engine-that-could territory and into a more established realm of the sport. Jay Wright would officially move alongside Rollie Massimino in the school's coaching pantheon. And Villanova would join Connecticut as the only Big East schools to win multiple national titles while members of the league.

The perfect game would finally have fitting company in the trophy case.

"We don't have to play perfect," Wright said. "We just have to play together. That's how we're going to play, and our guys believe we're going to win that way."

For Michigan State, the legacy in the balance is Tom Izzo's. He can move from one of the finest active coaches in college basketball into the realm of the all-time greats.

This is his fifth Final Four, which makes Izzo one of 11 coaches to compete in that many. And if he wins his second national title he joins even more select company.

A dozen men have won multiple titles, and eight of them have won two. Of the two-time winners, half of them did it back-to-back. While repeats are impressive, they're also usually accomplished with the same group of players -- in other words, Phil Wolpert's 1955 and '56 national titles at San Francisco were Bill Russell productions, and Billy Donovan's titles in 2006 and '07 were accomplished by Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green.

If Izzo wins a title nine years after claiming his first, he will have built two separate and complete championship teams. Just like Dean Smith, Denny Crum and Branch McCracken.

It wouldn't be a case of riding one superstar or one stellar recruiting class to multiple titles. It would be two distinct visits to the mountaintop.

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesOne more title and Jim Calhoun joins a select group where first names aren't necessary for identification.

For Connecticut, the legacy in the balance is Jim Calhoun's. At age 67, with a history of health issues and a fresh NCAA investigation afoot, he has been the subject of considerable speculation that this could be his final act.

If it is and the Huskies win the thing, Calhoun suddenly vaults into truly rarefied air. It would be his third title, and the only men who have done that need no first-name introduction: Wooden, Rupp, Knight, Krzyzewski. That would definitely change the discussion of where Calhoun ranks in the annals of college basketball coaching. (As could major sanctions from the NCAA -- but that's down the road at least a little bit.)

This is only Calhoun's third Final Four -- but when UConn gets this far, UConn wins it. The Huskies are 4-0 all time in Final Four games, having twice gone through Duke to get to the title. This time the Blue Devils are home watching, but another ACC team looms as a potential roadblock Monday night in North Carolina.

If it comes to that, as the oddsmakers predict and I suspect, the showdown of Tyler Hansbrough seeking his first title and Jim Calhoun possibly seeking his last would make for one compelling Monday night.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.