OMAHA — It’s a vivid final five this year. This should be an unusually anticipated final five as the planes start pointing to San Antonio. In a college basketball season that has gone from FBI to UMBC and an NCAA tournament full of STHU (Shut The Heck Up), these last five teams of Loyola Chicago, Michigan, Villanova, Kansas and Duke comprise a giddy lot. They remain at five while we wait for Grayson Allen’s final shot in regulation to make its wishy-washy tour of the rim and the backboard, while 17,579 spectators stare at it, still inhaling, and . . .
“I’m okay with it — I mean, it almost went in,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the shot selection.
“A shot at the end of regulation went in and out; it was just that type of game,” Duke star Marvin Bagley III said.
“It’s so abrupt,” Allen said.
So the shot seems ultimately to have missed. So farewell, Duke, finally. Duke’s fracas with Kansas in the Midwest Region final brimmed with such frenzied quality that regulation ended in a tie, securing Duke this final-five slot and reminding how this cherished annual three-week national habit doubles as glorious nonsense. Duke becomes this year’s version of the team that played as well as anybody yet has not advanced. On now to the capitalized Final Four, with its one darling and its three cuddly behemoths. Everybody’s hot; for the first time since 2010, all four of the lot won their conference tournaments.
Somehow, six months after a U.S. attorney stood up in Southern New York and talked some quite commendable trash — advising coaches that “it’s better for you to call us than for us to call you,” sort of an equivalent of, “It’s better for me to dunk on you than for you to dunk on me” — a sport that seemed ripe for implosion has come up with a 98-year-old nun with her own bobblehead. Asked by a truTV reporter what she gave up for Lent, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt said, “Losing.”
It’s unbeatable, March.
While no one knows what the Southern District of New York yet might have in store, everyone has forgotten to look. The Final Four will begin with a deeply likable matchup between Loyola Chicago (32-5) and Michigan (32-7), then veer into deeply likable Villanova (34-4) versus deeply likable Kansas (31-7), which used an exemplary turn of fearlessness against Duke to avoid what would have been all of these: a third straight Elite Eight loss, a sixth in Coach Bill Self’s 15-season tenure and mighty harsh.
“I think playing Duke in that game helped us,” Self said, “playing a school of that caliber and a program of that caliber,” and what a madly sensible construct there.
For further counter-intuition, try Loyola Chicago, which drew an average of 2,404 fans to home games in a 4,963-seat arena this season, although some might have missed the crowd counts because they got up to go to the loo, versus Michigan which, to use some oranges with the apples, drew an average of 111,589 to football games. (It drew 10,871 on average to a 12,707-seat men’s basketball arena.)
It’s small against the biggest kind of big, merging via the maddest kind of mad. Michigan faced a 63-61 deficit with 3.6 seconds left and 94 feet to go in the round of 32; Loyola Chicago faced a 62-61 deficit with 10 seconds left in the round of 32 after facing a 62-61 deficit with nine seconds left in the round of 64. (We’re all nuts.) Michigan plays on in part because, against Houston, freshman Isaiah Livers zinged an inbounds pass to near midcourt and to senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who moved strategically before kicking it over to freshman Jordan Poole, who nailed a three-point shot that could turn up in dreams of all kinds. Loyola Chicago plays on because Clayton Custer’s bounce-around shot against Tennessee dropped in the way Allen’s did not, and because Donte Ingram hit that shot from the top against Miami (Fla.), felling Jim Larranaga, who once coached George Mason. (We’re all nuts.)
Loyola Chicago hasn’t lost since Jan. 31, by 69-67, at Bradley in Peoria, Ill., when fifth-season Coach Porter Moser said, “You have to have games like this in the league, and the key is how you bounce back.” The Ramblers have bounced back okay. Michigan hasn’t lost since Feb. 6, by 61-52, at Northwestern, also in Illinois, and 11th-season Coach John Beilein said Saturday, “I think we lost in early February to Northwestern. Had a really bad second half against them. . . . And I don’t think we’ve lost since then.”
For Beilein’s second Final Four, which adds to that Elite Eight scrap with Kentucky in 2014 and that Sweet 16 final shot that didn’t fall against Oregon in 2017, he’ll get a few days to decipher the efficient parade of savage layups that Loyola Chicago used to build big leads on Nevada and Kansas State.
The whole thing is just delicious, and it’s supposedly only the lid-lifter for Kansas vs. Villanova.
That match will pit a consensus all-American point guard, Kansas’s Devonte’ Graham, against a consensus all-American point guard, Villanova’s Jalen Brunson, plus all their other terrific players. It will have Villanova (34-4), a team that can score yet got a testament to its expansive quality from Chris Beard, the coach of East Region runner-up Texas Tech.
“I can’t state this enough,” Beard said. “I think, myself included, somebody that’s looked up to [Villanova Coach Jay Wright] and watched Villanova basketball, you think it’s their three-point shooting, their small ball, their athleticism, but by far, their identity is their toughness. It’s one of the toughest teams we’ve played against this year. They out-rebounded us by 20.”
It turned out to be 18, but it felt like 20.
Then it will have Kansas (31-7), which hurdled both its haunting past and a daunting Duke to make Self both 3-7 in Elite Eight games and overcome with emotion when the overtime horn finally blared. In the faces of Malik Newman and Graham and Lagerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk as they made their bold drives and plays in the Duke zone forest, one might have spotted one of the best things about sports: how a fan base can reel with understandably frayed nerve endings while its young players can tame theirs.
“That’s what you come here for, to play in those moments,” Graham said. “All I kept telling the guy was, ‘Players make plays.’ ”
They made enough, including the beauty from Graham to Vick to Newman 109 seconds from the end, that they took this final five and squeezed out a Final Four. Self could look down the dais at his players, including the seniors Graham and Mykhailiuk, and know they got their chance right before their exit. He’s happy for himself and for all around him, probably even the various ecstatic tuba and trombone players exiting the arena Sunday, bound for San Antonio, but, Self said, “I’m more happy for these guys because they deserve to experience what the best of college basketball is, and that will be what takes place Saturday and Monday.”
If that turns out better than what has happened already, then people will keep on forgetting about the FBI.
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