Goodbye again, March, you sorehead. We’re sorry. We’re sorry we sneered you weren’t up to snuff this year with your first-weekend tedium and your paucity of upsets and your sudden lack of buzzer-beating lunacy. We’re sorry we spent the weekdays last week accusing you of taking this year off to go hang out by the chalky sea.
It clearly irked the hell out of you. You not only crafted one of your most stirring sets of region finals in your whole region-final-mad life, a near-rival to 2005, four games with regulations that ended with an aggregate margin of seven points (two ties, a one-pointer and a riveting six-pointer). No, you spent the 48 hours between Friday evening and Sunday evening stomping around until you ravaged just about all the mansions.
When your tantrum ended, you left us one of your funkiest Final Fours: the gritty kingdom of Michigan State plus three programs from the vast proletarian division — Texas Tech, Virginia and Auburn. It’s appealing for its freshness and for those who fancy basketball, but for those who kind of happen by the Final Four gatherings seeking starshine, well, they might mistake it momentarily for some preseason tournament in November.
Anybody mind switching to football?
Look what March wrecked just before it left: It ran off Duke, the team of the 2018-19 season. It ran off North Carolina, the contender that twice beat the team of the 2018-19 season. It shooed Kentucky and all the royalty and capitalism therein. It harrumphed even at sprightly Gonzaga, the tallest tree of the West, which also beat the team of the season and which traveled hopefully all year with its fabulous constellation of talents.
Remember when the season got going Nov. 6, and No. 4 Duke looked celestial and pulverized No. 2 Kentucky, 118-84, in Indianapolis, and people wondered how Kentucky might function from there (pretty well) and how it might function in a potential rematch?
How about a Final Four with neither?
In its huff, March spent its final late afternoon running off Duke’s Zion Williamson, the man so rapidly famous he couldn’t even bust a shoe without wreaking a national discussion. March decided on one more splash of 24 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks against Michigan State, and then March said, Nah. There’ll be a Final Four without him, unless the NCAA just decides to have him play anyway.
Before it lost its No. 1 individual attraction, it already had lost its No. 2 in Ja Morant of Murray State and sent away its No. 3, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards. Oh, it let him provide one of the most jaw-plunging performances in tournament history, 42 points against Virginia. It let him entertain the thought of Purdue’s first Final Four in 39 years. Then, as if saying, “I will not be underestimated,” it saw him off in the rudest of manners, an overtime opportunity delivered via a tip-back offensive rebound, a desperate backward scramble, a doozy of a long pass from a 5-foot-9 giant and a hard, sweet little shot from a 6-foot-9 giant.
While Virginia fans will relish for the rest of their lives both a small Southern Californian named for a town on Maui (Kihei Clark) and a tall West African from Conakry, Guinea (Mamadi Diakite), March still managed to dismiss a sparkling strand of its wondrous internationalism. It ushered out Rui Hachimura, the Japanese-Beninese player for Gonzaga, and with him, it sent away the Japanese media who had added such life to the arena hallways.
It also ran off Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke, and really, nobody should ever do that.
It cast aside Mike Krzyzewski with his five titles, Roy Williams with his three titles, John Calipari with his one title and six Final Fours, Mark Few with his 20 straight tournaments and his 2017 Final Four and his nine Sweet 16s. It showed no regard for fame unless one counts Tom Izzo.
That left April sitting around puzzled with its nutty Final Four, with two debutantes (Texas Tech, Auburn) and one fresh off a 35-year absence (Virginia). It has Virginia as having arranged the best story of the bunch because of the curious backdrop of a game it lost, in March of 2018, to Maryland Baltimore County, back when March was March right off the bat and we didn’t need to needle it. It has Auburn with its offseason, supporting-actor turn in the FBI hall of fame, and with its 12-game winning streak and its two bold guards from Georgia (Jared Harper, Bryce Brown), which might even annoy Georgians if they weren’t too busy analyzing spring football practice. There’s Texas Tech, with its players known only to Big 12 savants, yet whom also people really should take the time to know, from charismatic senior Norense Odiase from Fort Worth to thoughtful transfers Tariq Owens (St. John’s) and Matt Mooney (South Dakota), to a 46 percent three-point shooter from Bologna, the one in Italy (Davide Moretti).
“Texas Tech is going to the Final Four,” third-year, rising-star coach Chris Beard said in closing on Saturday in Anaheim, Calif., almost as if repeating it might coax one into believing it.
“Could I ask you one favor?” Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, the excellent coach with the, oh, colorful past, said to the interview-room moderator Sunday in Kansas City, Mo., right after Auburn toppled Kentucky in overtime. “Could you say the very first part of what you said when you introduced us? Do you remember what it was?”
“The Auburn Tigers going to the Final Four are with us,” the moderator remembered saying.
“Thank you, sir,” Pearl said, having ascertained it might be true.
His team had just stormed through the SEC tournament to win that, and then it had weathered ludicrous closing seconds against New Mexico State that portended nothing, except that then it had wiped out the Nos. 2, 3 and 1 programs in history: Kansas, then North Carolina, then Kentucky. And that last one, Auburn wrung even while lacking a vital player, Chuma Okeke, after his absolute bummer of a knee injury against North Carolina.
That’s what they did — unless, of course, March did it.
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