After Boring Run-Up, Final Four Could Leave Lasting Mark

By John Feinstein
Tuesday, March 31, 2009; 1:51 PM

Almost five months after the college basketball season began -- and with one weekend to go -- it appears that everything has come full circle.

By the time the first TV timeout was called on Nov. 11, the experts were ceding the national championship to North Carolina. That is, unless Connecticut could find a way to stop the Tar Heels in the Final Four.

North Carolina dealt with some injuries -- Tyler Hansbrough early and Ty Lawson late -- and a couple of upsets, notably to Boston College at home on Jan. 4. Connecticut couldn't handle Pittsburgh during the regular season and lost an epic six-overtime game to Syracuse in the Big East tournament.

But now the dust has cleared and the carnival is setting up for the week in Detroit, and the consensus still holds that only the Huskies have a reasonable chance to deny the Tar Heels the national title. And even though the best story lines right now are those provided by Michigan State and Villanova, the best teams, in all likelihood, are the ones coached by Roy Williams and Jim Calhoun.

Michigan State, which plays Connecticut in the first game on Saturday night, will certainly be the sentimental favorite for most fans who don't have some kind of attachment to the other three teams. The Spartans will be playing 90 miles from their campus in East Lansing, Mich., but what makes their story compelling is all the heartache the city of Detroit has been through economically in the past year.

Throughout that time, much has been made of the fact that even the local sports teams have let Michiganders down. The Lions became the first team in NFL history to go 0-16. The Tigers, after winning a pennant in 2006, finished fifth in the AL Central last season. The Pistons have become mediocre. Even Michigan football had a shockingly bad season. Only the Red Wings have continued to win championships and compete at a consistently high level.

Now the city and the state (outside of Michigan fans, no doubt) can revel in the Spartans' success. And even though Coach Tom Izzo has been down this road before -- this is his fifth Final Four in 11 years, and Michigan State won it all in 2000 -- he's never been there under circumstances quite like these.

"I just hope we've given people something they can smile about," he said after his team stunned top-seeded Louisville, 64-52, in the Midwest Region final on Sunday. "We all know how tough these last few months have been."

Villanova is also a good story, but for reasons not nearly as dramatic. The Wildcats haven't been to a Final Four since their "perfect game" championship victory over Georgetown in 1985. To put that in perspective, consider this: The other three programs still standing have been to 17 Final Fours since then (North Carolina has been to nine, Michigan State five and Connecticut three) and won five national championships.

However, the simple fact going into the final weekend is this: North Carolina and Connecticut haven't been in serious danger yet. The biggest challenge for Calhoun has been answering questions about what appear to be serious recruiting improprieties involving the very troubled Nate Miles. The good news in that for Connecticut is that this run won't be jeopardized, as Miles never played a game in a Huskies uniform. What is in jeopardy is Calhoun's legacy. He's already in the Hall of Fame, but a black mark like this will follow him into retirement if the allegations are confirmed by the NCAA, or even worse, if the NCAA goes in and finds there's more to this than just Miles.

There are some who think Calhoun may decide to step down as early as next week if the Huskies cut down the nets on Monday night. Calhoun is almost 67 and has had two bouts with cancer. A win Monday night would give him three national titles, tying him with Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski behind only John Wooden's 10 and Adolph Rupp's four. He would walk away a hero in the eyes of the Connecticut fans because -- like all fans -- they will fall back on the "everybody does it" excuse used by supporters of successful coaches who get into trouble.

Calhoun is so intense he can literally put himself in the hospital getting wound up about games. It might very well be that his doctors and the people around him insist he hang it up, especially if he wins another title.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company