Final Four Fits All Ages ; Champs of Many Eras Clash in Atlanta
The NCAA Tournament background singers have been excused, with 60 swan songs. What's remaining now is a Final Four of tradition both old and new.
A Final Four with 15 NCAA titles to their combined acclaim, for every age group.
For the adolescents, there is defending champion Florida. The new- age Goliath that slumbered toward the end of the season, and only now is sleek, reborn and highly dangerous. For the 40-somethings, we give you Georgetown, once enrolled in the Final Four frequent-guest club, but unseen in these parts since 1985.
For the parents, there's UCLA, its past linked to John Wooden, Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton and a memento of the 1960s and 70s. And for the grandparents, there is Ohio State. Once, before ESPN, RPI and bracketologists, the Buckeyes were a Final Four regular. They went to three Final Fours from 1960-62, but have been just once since. Until Sunday.
It is a Final Four where the spirit of coaching legends named Wooden and John Thompson Jr. will hover above the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Where Billy Donovan, building a Florida powerhouse program deep in the heart of football country, can inhabit the infrequent mountain of a repeat champion.
"This year it's a little bit different, I shouldn't say a little bit," Donovan said. "It's a lot different coming in with the high expectations."
Where Thad Matta will see if he can back the promise he made to his freshman stars that Ohio State would win a national title if they both came to Columbus.
"I believed him the first day I was on campus, when he was recruiting us," said freshman point guard Mike Conley Jr.
Where John Thompson III can escape the considerable shadow of his legendary father.
"The comparisons to Pop's teams, much like the talk about Big Pat, Little Pat, Big John, Little John, you guys can do that," Thompson III said. "We're here playing, trying to figure out how to win games."
Where Ben Howland, whose grinding style some said would never work in Westwood, can become a championship at the school that Wooden built. He is the first coach at UCLA since Wooden to reach consecutive Final Fours.
"Just a great blessing," he said. "It really is a blessing that I never expected."
It is a Final Four with four different cultures. One from the SEC, one from the Big East, one from the Pacific-10 and one from the Big Ten. The only thing missing is a school from the Atlantic Coast Conference for the second straight season. The last time that happened Jimmy Carter was still in office.
It is a Final Four with big names, familiar faces like Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Arron Afflalo. And also a Final Four of fresh stars like Conley, Greg Oden and DaJuan Summers. It is a Final Four created with two No. 1 seeds and a pair of No. 2s. Four 30-win teams. There are no wimps headed for Atlanta. No flukes.
UCLA, a No. 2 seed, is considered the long-shot underdog. Really? The Bruins ripped No. 1 Kansas in the West regional finals and have revenge on their minds after Florida won in a laugher during last year's title game.
Ohio State had been flirting with disaster -- remember the Xavier game -- but as a young team that doesn't know any better the Buckeyes may be the most dangerous team headed for Georgia.
Georgetown reputedly has no offense and doesn't like to run, so explain the 14-0 spurt at the start of overtime Sunday against No. 1 seed North Carolina? And who has more balance, and executes better offensively than the Hoyas?
Then there's Florida with Noah and Horford. Horford and Noah. It doesn't matter, they're interchangeable. Their sidekick is future lottery pick Corey Brewer. The Gators are the favorite.
The Final Four cast is set. Time to pick a champion.