Will the Final Four actually be a letdown?
And now for the anticlimax. The Final Four.
Before you charge The Minutes with being legally insane, please remember that we're staggering to St. Louis still drunk on the greatest 27½ hours in NCAA Tournament history (1). From Saturday afternoon into Easter Sunday evening, we got the maddest Madness ever, the most vivid evidence yet that this is America's best sporting event.
Four games. Four total overtimes. Four incredible competitions, all decided by single digits, all containing last-minute drama, all with a great back story to tell.
Louisville (2), on the verge of being Pittsnogled (3) right out of the Tournament, rises from 20 down to beat West Virginia (4) for its first Final Four in 19 years. That made Rick Pitino (5) the first coach to take three different schools to the Promised Land. That seemed impossible to top.
And then, 2½ hours later, there was Bruce Weber (6) in tears, Final Four-bound and thinking of his mom who died before the tournament began. His Illinois (7) team had merely come back from 15 points down with a little more than four minutes left to beat Arizona (8).
Sunday led off with the stinker of the group. North Carolina (9) merely pulled out an 88-82 victory over relentless Wisconsin (10), in a game that was closer and more entertaining than most envisioned. On a normal March weekend, that's a tremendous game. Sandwiched between what came before and what came after, it was a dud.
The second game Sunday went double-OT and featured Patrick Sparks (11) making the most dramatic shot of the 2005 tournament and, arguably, the most dramatic shot in the impossibly rich history of Kentucky (12) basketball. And it still wasn't enough to stop on-a-mission Michigan State (13).
Four games. Four overtime periods. Four hundred memories. Four thousand thrills.
Yo, Bucknell was swell. Vermont added verve. Wisconsin-Milwaukee was Wisconsin-Magnificent.
But part of the beauty of the NCAA Tournament is how the cute early stories are gradually replaced by something of grander scope: the great teams, the great games and the great drama. We got that this weekend. We got as much as our hearts could handle.
Now it's time to play for keeps. So pass the glycerin pills, keep the shock paddles handy and get ready for more even if it can't live up to what we just saw ...
... Can it?
Illinois is right across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, but the Illini are now going to face feverish competition for seats in the Edward Jones Dome.
Louisville is a four-hour drive on I-64, and its fans are out of their minds with excitement over their Cardiac Cards. North Carolina fans aren't going to sit home when their team is this close to its first national title in 12 years. And Michigan State fans are well within reach of the Arch as well.
Bottom line: The Minutes predicts record demand, and record ticket prices. All the college assistants who annually sell their ducats to ticket brokers will make out like bandits.
And just think what the market would have been like if Kentucky had made it.
Comeback Cardinals to Indomitable Illini: Ours was bigger.
Insurmountable Illini to Cardiac Cards: Ours was later and greater.
It might have been the most exciting day of regional finals ever. If not, The Minutes at least marks it as the most exciting day of regional finals since March 28, 1998. Stanford came from six points down with 59 seconds left to beat Rhode Island 79-77, and then Kentucky rose from a 17-point second-half deficit to defeat Duke 86-84 in the Laettner Payback game.
Somehow, Saturday seems even better.
Now Louisville and Illinois collide in an epic confrontation of teams that, to infringe on John Calipari's trademark, refuse to lose. (And by the way, how's that NIT going, Cal?)
The Illini are merely 36-1, the lone loss coming by a point on a 3 in the final seconds. The Cardinals are 33-4, have won 13 straight and 21 of their last 22. But they have more in common than that, and their jaw-dropping Saturday comebacks.
Start with six creative, gutsy perimeter players who figure to attack each other with maximum ferocity. Louisville's Francisco Garcia (14), Taquan Dean (15) and Larry O'Bannon (16) scored 60 of the Cardinals' 93 points against West Virginia, including 20 of the last 24 in regulation. Illinois' Deron Williams (17), Luther Head (18) and Dee Brown (19) scored 57 of the Illini's 90 against Arizona, including all of the last 20 in regulation.
Then go to four underrated but effective post players. Louisville has fifth-year senior Ellis Myles (20), who is packing averages of 10.2 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists, and skilled freshman Juan Diego Palacios (21), averaging 11.5 points and 6.3 rebounds in the NCAAs. Illinois counters with long James Augustine (22), averaging 12.4 points and 10.3 rebounds in postseason play, and wide Roger Powell (23), who averaged 14 points and seven rebounds in two games in Chicago.
They even have a similar senior sub who was vital Saturday. Louisville's Otis George (24) made all four shots he took, and Illinois' Jack Ingram (25) also scored eight big points.
The similarities end at the coaches. Pitino stands next to Mike Krzyzewski (26) on a higher plane than the rest of their colleagues. They're simply the two best in the business. Bruce Weber (27) has never been to the Final Four without a ticket, not even as an assistant, but is now overseeing what looks to The Minutes like the finest season in college basketball since Duke '92.
Pitino took his best shot at derailing that express. Now he'll have a go at Illinois.
This national semifinal was supposed to happen earlier. Last year, at least. Michigan State's core group of Paul Davis (28), Chris Hill (29), Kelvin Torbert (30) and Alan Anderson (31) were supposed to be Final Four regulars by now. North Carolina's junior triumvirate of Sean May (32), Raymond Felton (33) and Rashad McCants (34) were supposed to have traveled this route already, too.
Hell, they were all supposed to be in the NBA by now.
But look what can happen when you hang around Old Siwash long enough to actually grow up and learn a little about the game. And about life.
After being called "losers" earlier this season in one Detroit newspaper, the Spartans rose up and proved their winner's resolve over two heroic games in Austin. First they took down No. 1 seed Duke, then they overcame No. 2 seed Kentucky, barely blinking after a certain victory got away at the end of regulation. Bravo, Tom Izzo (35), truly one of the great guys and great coaches in the business. Anyone who thought his best days had passed with the back-to-back-to-back Final Fours of 1999-2001 had better think again.
The Spartans will play a Carolina crew that was called the Chapel Hill Lakers all talent, no trophies. All they needed was some maturity, and a top-shelf coach like Roy Williams (36) to show them the way.
And now Ringless Roy is two wins away from finally getting the coaching King Kong off his back. We're down to the final weekend, and Williams still hasn't had his season-ending cry yet.
If the Tar Heels win Saturday, they'll advance to the final Monday still waiting to face their first opponent seeded fourth or higher. But seeding is out the window at this point, at least with Michigan State.
The Spartans and let's pause for a moment to congratulate a league The Minutes has dissed on many occasions, the Big Ten (37), for fielding half the Final Four like to go from defense to offense just as quickly as the Heels. They'll have the athleticism on the perimeter to match up. They'll have the depth to hang around. And if Davis can avoid being shoved around by May for position in the paint, his length will make it hard for the Carolina powerhouse to duplicate the Herculean 29 and 12 he dropped on Wisconsin.
The fact that the two fan bases had grown so itchy for another Final Four trip goes to show how effectively they'd been spoiled. For perspective, just look at the other side, where Louisville ('86) and Illinois ('89) made their last trips when rap was young.
There were no headbands or braids to be seen back in the day. To Milt Wagner (38) and Kenny Battle (39), Dee Brown would look like some kind of cartoon character.
When hungry in St. Louis and in the vicinity of the dome, The Minutes recommends the toasted ravioli at Charlie Gitto's (40). The Minutes would love to join you for a bite, but if the games replicate what we saw this weekend, all meals will be taken from a hospital bed.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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