The scholars who decide such things for this newspaper met in smoke-filled rooms (armed with dictionaries and eight pounds of arbitrariness) to decide that the NCAA basketball tournament semifinals will be the "final four," never the "Final Four."
Far be it from a field hand to differ with the folks in the big house, but it's as out of whack to write that Georgia reached the final four as it would be to say the Orioles won the world series. Let's see. Jack Nicklaus has won five masters, and now the Redskins have won a super bowl.
The Final Four, to write it the way the NCAA does, is a capital-letter event as surely as any sports shindig around. Over the last decade, it has become one of the mandatory stops marked on a sportswriter's calendar: the Masters in April, the Derby in May, the World Series in October, the Super Bowl in January, and in March the final four.
They had 61,612 customers for last March's semifinal games in the final four at the Louisiana Superdome. Another 20 million watched on television. As the culmination of a four-month season, the NCAA tournament is a serial drawn out for a month of cliffhangers until the audience, hooked by the exuberance and excellence of the college game, becomes 20 million strong to see which team is the final one.
"This is the fatted calf, the one everyone is going for," said Dale Brown, the coach at Louisiana State.
Maybe no game today offers more possible champions than college basketball. Barely three weeks ago, North Carolina State and Georgia seemed only two of the 100 teams that Brown says are very good these days. Now, either N.C. State or Georgia will play for the 1983 national championship, meeting the Louisville-Houston winner.
Basketball is a volatile, unpredictable mixture of skill, luck and (for all we know) biorhythms. In a single-elimination tournament, a Virginia with Ralph Sampson is vulnerable to a day's vicissitudes. That vulnerability increases exponentially when the other team can flat play ball. And almost everybody can play these days, whether they're a famous 7-foot-4 or an obscure 6-1.
Parity is the word.
In the standings after 18 conference games, Georgia was the sixth-best team in its league. Then it won the league's postseason tournament. It has won three NCAA tournament games. What's it all mean? Only this: somebody had to finish sixth in the SEC, and after that anything can happen.
Anything can happen because parity is here. Maybe 40 teams could ride the perfect wave to a national championship. Schools realize money and prestige can be won in basketball on a minimal budget with the addition of maybe two key players. Now SEC schools no longer announce the "promotion" of the basketball coach to assistant line coach (as Mississippi did only 15 years ago).
Now Georgia recruits the same players Louisville does. With so many good high school players, it is no big deal to get a decent college team. The difference comes with the very best players, such as Vern Fleming, the junior guard at Georgia.
Fleming is a New Yorker who was headed for Louisville. Georgia Coach Hugh Durham talked him out of it.
"Louisville was coming off its national championship in 1980," Durham told the Atlanta Journal, "with every starter back except Darrell Griffith. We convinced Vern that if Louisville didn't win the national title again, then he'd get the blame."
So because Louisville already had so many good players, Georgia picked up one who three years later helps them to the final four, where he might be able to deny Louisville a national championship.
Such parity also may be reflected in the passionate styles of play that have delivered Houston, Louisville, Georgia and N.C. State here. Conspicuous by their towering absence are Sampson, Patrick Ewing, Brad Daugherty, Steve Stipanovich and Melvin Turpin.
This doesn't mean the big man is obsolete. Houston has a 7-footer, Akeem Abdul Olajuwan, and State's Thurl Bailey is 6-11. The important thing is that neither plays the plodding, set-it-up-in-the-point kind of traditional big-man offense designed to produce the highest-percentage shot possible.
Quickly, we should add there's nothing wrong with an offense that functions carefully. North Carolina proved that last season, and Indiana did it the year before. Over a decade, such offense will succeed more often than it fails. But in a single-elimination tournament, a free-wheeling team on a roll can beat anyone.
Look at the regional finals: Georgia over North Carolina, Houston over Villanova, N.C. State over Virginia, Louisville over Kentucky. In each instance, the quicker team reduced a proud opponent to a frustrated plodder.
"It just happens," said Bob Ferry, the Bullets' general manager, "that this year the aggressive offensive teams have succeeded. N.C. State is very aggressive. They were even driving against a zone. They're setting picks for Dereck Whittenburg 30 feet out. All of them--the final four--are aggressive offensively.
"It's a total optimistic approach. They're not looking for the 60 percent shot. Georgia has been playing like it has nothing to lose and so they're going to shove it to you. The four coaches in the final four all are letting their guys play and expose what kind of athletes they are instead of trying to control the tempo or something."
Ferry said the difference is musical. "Some coaches, like some musicians, might be wonderful at conducting a symphony orchestra. But others, because of their personalities, would rather direct a jazz ensemble. It's whatever the leader is best at. This happens to be the year of the jazz band."