Final Four offers plenty of story lines
Connecticut, Michigan State, North Carolina and Villanova breakdown
The timing of a recent Time magazine story that focused on Detroit's struggles to make it through this rough economic climate could not have been much worse.
Pictures in the story showed "dead zones," decaying former auto plants and bleak views of a city that was described as "postapocalyptic."
Hey, welcome to Detroit, Final Four fans!
But that was before Sunday. Michigan State's win over Louisville in Indianapolis guaranteed a festive home atmosphere in Detroit featuring a home-state team to rally the populace behind the event.
MSU coach Tom Izzo, a native Michigander from the Upper Peninsula, is the perfect ambassador for the Final Four. His team will try to become the first to win a championship in its home state since UCLA great John Wooden closed out his career with a win in the 1975 title game in San Diego.
Now that the Spartans will be considered the home team, the Final Four can go on with plenty of intrigue from the moment the teams enter the Motor City on Wednesday.
But digest these facts: • Since 1999, Michigan State has had the most Final Four appearances with five. UNC ranks second with four. And UConn is tied for third with three.
• None of the four teams won its conference tournament this season.
• The 2007-08 national player of the year, Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina, came back for his senior season to win a title.
• Three of the four coaches have won a national championship. Two of the four coaches are already in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (UConn's Jim Calhoun and UNC's Roy Williams).
• Connecticut coach Calhoun has battled cancer twice, earned a spot in the Hall of Fame and won two national titles, yet is dealing with his most pressing NCAA crisis after being accused of major recruiting violations on Wednesday, a day before UConn beat Purdue in the Sweet 16.
• Calhoun has an amazing track record of winning the event when he's in it. He has been in two previous Final Fours and won them both.
• Villanova reached the Final Four on the tournament's most memorable shot so far, a Scottie Reynolds bucket with a half second left that beat Pitt in the Elite Eight. A year ago, the shot of the tournament before the Final Four came from Western Kentucky in a first-round win over Drake. That moment was superseded in the national title game when Mario Chalmers of Kansas hit the tying 3-pointer to force overtime against Memphis. This time, the player who made the most dramatic shot before the Final Four can follow up that performance with an encore of winning the title.
• Two Big East teams are in the Final Four, ensuring that the league earns its due for being the toughest this season. But let it not be mistaken for 1985, when three Big East teams made it this far. That version of the conference had better teams, better players and an even more rigorous slate of games than this season.
• Connecticut and Michigan State have met only twice before. The Huskies won at home on Dec. 5, 1998, 82-68, and went on to win the title at the end of the season. The next season, the two played in East Lansing. Michigan State won 85-68 and went on to win the title at the end of the season.
• Ford Field will be the first domed Final Four site to experiment with having the court in the middle of the vast arena. This is expected to be the best attended Final Four, as the new configuration will allow more people to fit inside the cavernous Ford Field.
• The NCAA is making good on its promise of trying to have the games seem a bit more student-friendly than corporate, as 1,600 students of the four schools left in the tournament apparently have been guaranteed seating at $20 a pop.
What about the teams?
West Regional championNo. 1 Connecticut (31-4, 15-3 Big East, T-2 in conference) Tourney run: Connecticut obliterated No. 16 Chattanooga 103-47 in the first round, ran away from Texas A&M by 26 points in the second round, out-toughed Purdue by 12 in the Sweet 16 and was able to keep Missouri back a few paces in winning by seven in the Elite Eight.
Top story lines: • The Huskies and Calhoun are looking to win their third national title. Each time the Huskies won the title game, they came out of the state of Arizona, and the titles were five years apart (1999, 2004). We don't need to tell you how many years it has been since 2004.
• Connecticut is the first team this decade that enters the Final Four with a cloud hanging over the program amid alleged major recruiting violations uncovered by Yahoo! Sports' six-month investigation. UNLV already had been to the 1990 and '91 Final Four before the infamous hot tub photo of three Runnin' Rebels at the home of Richie "The Fixer" Perry was published in May 1991.
• UConn senior guard A.J. Price is in the Final Four 30 years after his father, Tony, was a member of the 1979 Final Four team from Penn.
• The Final Four hasn't seen a big man like 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet since the 1984 Final Four, when Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon and Georgetown's Patrick Ewing dominated the discussion. Thabeet is nothing close to either, but he may be the most defensive game-changing center to play in the Final Four since those two were in the event.
Theme of the season: Thabeet. He has been the most talked about, most dissected and most disruptive force on the Huskies. The improvement of Thabeet into a co-Big East Player of the Year was the most consistently discussed aspect of the Huskies. He didn't even have to play well to be the center of attention. When Pitt's DeJuan Blair flipped Thabeet in a Feb. 16 game, that play was as much the conversation point as Blair's production or Levance Fields' late-game 3s.
Old news: The importance of Jerome Dyson to UConn's winning the title has become moot. Sure, the Huskies could use Dyson's perimeter defense and spot 3-point shooting. But they didn't look as though they missed him one bit during the tournament's first four games.
Speed bumps: Calhoun was sick before the first-round game against Chattanooga. He didn't coach the team that day, yet it still won handily. The Huskies couldn't beat Pitt in either game they played during the regular season, yet they are in the Final Four while Pitt is not. Losing to Georgetown to open the Big East season at home sent shock waves through the conference. The Huskies are in the Final Four, while Georgetown limped out of the NIT's first round.
Rising star: The Huskies talked throughout the preseason about the need for Kemba Walker to push the tempo. He had his moments but never really found a consistent stride until the Elite Eight, when he scored 23 points in 25 minutes, making 7 of 9 shots and 9 of 10 at the free-throw line.
Team MVPs: Thabeet and Price get the hype, but if Jeff Adrien hadn't been a double-double machine and Stanley Robinson hadn't blocked shots (four against Missouri) and rebounded, the Huskies would have been out early in this event.
Advantage: No team in the Final Four has someone like Thabeet. If he plays true to his size and disrupts enough shots, whether by blocking, altering or scaring them from being taken, the Huskies can win the title.
Midwest Regional championNo. 2 Michigan State (30-6, 15-3 Big Ten, first) Tourney run: The Spartans ran past No. 15 Robert Morris by 15, gutted out a five-point win over surging Pac-10 tourney champ USC, had a comeback against No. 3 Kansas in the Sweet 16 and shockingly ran away from No. 1 overall seed Louisville in the Elite Eight.
Top story lines: • Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has an unbelievable record of players who spend their senior seasons with him making at least one Final Four appearance. This class just made it in after coming on board following the Spartans' 2005 Final Four appearance.
• The Spartans are playing in their home state. That doesn't happen often in the Final Four. Since Purdue played in Indianapolis in 1980, Duke's playing in Charlotte in 1994 is the only other example -- and Charlotte isn't exactly Blue Devils country. The Detroit area features a strong fan base and plenty of MSU alumni, so the Spartans essentially could have home games in the national semifinals and final if they beat Connecticut. Michigan State fans may not spark a boon to the Detroit economy because many won't need lodging, but their presence ensures that the hard-to-sell Detroit Final Four will be a huge local hit. It will be hard not to have a festive feel in the Motor City with thousands of green-clad fans flocking downtown to get to Ford Field.
• Izzo is looking to win his second national championship -- and second this decade. He started off the decade with a victory in 2000.
• Michigan State has karma in its favor, too. Behind Earvin Johnson, the Spartans won the national title 30 years ago over Indiana State and Larry Bird in Salt Lake City. The NCAA plans to honor Magic and Bird in Detroit this weekend. Former MSU coach Jud Heathcote had planned to be in Detroit for the Spartans' reunion, but now he can cheer on his beloved Spartans, too.
Theme of the season: Injuries. It's hard not to be redundant, but the Spartans weren't the same team when Goran Suton was hurt early in the season and missed losses to Maryland in Orlando, Fla., and North Carolina in Detroit. Raymar Morgan battled mononucleosis, missed three games and was slowed by the illness in a number of others, including a home loss to Penn State. Delvon Roe didn't miss any games, but it took him some time to get going after he missed his senior season of high school following microfracture knee surgery.
Undervalued accomplishment: The Spartans won the Big Ten regular-season title by four games over Purdue and Illinois. That wasn't given its proper due toward the end of the season.
Understudy: Durrell Summers is one of many key Spartans players, and he came up with 12 critical points in the victory over Louisville, making 2 of 3 3s. Summers' ability to make 3s could prove vital if the Spartans are to beat Connecticut.
Speed bumps: The Spartans got blasted by 35 points against North Carolina at Ford Field on Dec. 3 and lost at home in the same season to Penn State and Northwestern. The latter losses didn't turn out to be awful because both teams were in the chase for an NCAA tournament berth in the final weeks of the season.
Advantage: Michigan State is playing a pseudo-home game in the national semifinal. UConn had better empty the state to compete with this crowd. It certainly will be more exciting than a typical Lions game.
South Regional championNo. 1 North Carolina (32-4, 13-3 ACC, first) Tourney run: The Tar Heels blitzed No. 16 Radford in the first round, had to deal with scrappy No. 8 LSU in the second round before winning by 14, crushed No. 4 Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 and kept No. 2 Oklahoma at arm's reach for most of the second half in the Elite Eight.
Top story lines: • Iconic senior Tyler Hansbrough, the 2007-08 national player of the year, is looking to close out his college career with a national title.
• Roy Williams is attempting to win his second national title as a coach. Both would be with UNC and within four years.
• The Tar Heels are going for their fifth national title.
• Recently named ACC player of the year Ty Lawson may have the inside track on being the player of the NCAA tournament so far.
Revisionist history: Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green came back this season because they weren't going to be picked early enough in the first round of last season's draft. Had they been locks for the lottery, they likely would have stayed in the draft. Once they returned, their obvious goal was to win a national title.
Expectations: The Tar Heels were the consensus No. 1 team in the fall and were projected to win the ACC regular season and reach the Final Four. All that has occurred.
Speed bumps: An 0-2 start in the ACC surprised the league and made the Tar Heels mere mortals this season.
Old news: The Tar Heels don't play defense well enough to win the title. That doesn't wash anymore, especially after Oklahoma scored only 60 points in the Elite Eight game and shot just 2-of-19 on 3s.
Top understudy: Ed Davis. He comes off the bench and continues to be a tough matchup for the opponent. Davis can finish on the break, grab boards, block shots and pose defensive problems with his length.
Advantage: The Tar Heels are the only team heading to Detroit with players who have competed in a Final Four. UNC was humbled by Kansas a year ago in San Antonio. That game has brought added motivation for the Tar Heels. The players won't be wide-eyed, either. The Tar Heels played at Ford Field in December in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and walloped Michigan State.
East Regional championNo. 3 Villanova (30-7, 13-5 Big East, fourth) Tourney run: Was down double digits with 13 minutes to go against American before rallying to win comfortably at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, crushed UCLA by 20 in the second round, outmuscled Duke by 23 in the Sweet 16 in Boston and won the most dramatic game of the NCAA tournament on Scottie Reynolds' pull-up shot with five-tenths of a second left to beat Pitt 78-76 in the Elite Eight.
Top story lines: • Villanova is making its first Final Four appearance since Rollie Massimino's eighth-seeded Wildcats shocked the sport in 1985 with a title game victory over mighty Georgetown.
• The Wildcats are the one team in the field that is entering on dramatic momentum.
• Dante Cunningham or Reynolds may get some NBA draft love after the event, but Villanova is the lone Final Four team that didn't have any preseason NBA hype for any of its players.
• Jay Wright is the only coach in the Final Four who is making his first appearance in the event, as well as the only coach of the four who hasn't won a national title.
Theme: The Wildcats have been one of the most improved teams this month and haven't peaked. The Cats were a constant work in progress and finally understood how Wright wanted to play defense. Now that they have locked in, they are a physical, tough, perimeter-defense-minded team that is one heckuva tough out.
Old news: The Wildcats didn't have a signature nonconference win and lost their highest-profile game to Texas in the Jimmy V Classic in New York in December.
Speed bumps: The Wildcats lost three of their first five games in the Big East, and their first two wins came in overtime at Seton Hall and at home over St. John's. One of the losses came after a pair of missed free throws and a pair of missed shots near the basket in the closing seconds of a one-point loss to Louisville.
Top understudy: Senior Shane Clark hasn't produced major numbers this season, but he made three 3s in the Elite Eight win over Pitt. All three were in the first half and allowed the Wildcats to keep the Panthers off a bit early in the game.
Most improved player: Cunningham could have made an argument to get a piece of the Big East Player of the Year award. He was instrumental in the Wildcats' making a respectable run to the top four of the conference. Cunningham's game has diversified throughout the season, and he continues to be a constant for Nova on offense.
Advantage: The Wildcats have zero pressure to win the title. Michigan State is the home team. Top-seeded North Carolina and Connecticut are the favorites and have been expected to be in the Final Four and win. Villanova was the late addition to the party after winning in the most dramatic fashion. The Wildcats come in as the charmed citizens. No team should be as loose as the Cats.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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