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What comes next for Caitlin Clark is the hardest part
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A flea-market Final Four is plenty of fun if you have the right spirit

Florida Atlantic is in the Final Four for the first time in program history. (Elsa/Getty Images)
7 min

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — From a historical perspective, the men’s Final Four looks like somebody drew it up at 3 a.m. in some dungeon of a bar after spending several hours sipping some sort of unregulated hooch. Your opinion of it might depend on your opinion of spending a 3 a.m. in some dungeon of a bar sipping some sort of unregulated hooch.

It’s the Rorschach Final Four.

Who are you, anyway?

There’s been a hypothesis out there for some time, maybe even spoken during 3 a.m.’s of sipped hooch, that Americans relish their March Madness upsets but prefer that the upsetters do their upsetting and then get lost after the early rounds rather than crowding the Final Four with proletariat. Once the Final Fours begin, the snobbery begins again, goes the thinking. The 2022 Final Four dazzled in that regard: Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Villanova, with 18 national titles and 61 Final Four berths shouting from that group.

Caitlin Clark’s magic made NCAA history — and left adults giggling

Now here are Florida Atlantic, San Diego State, Miami and Connecticut, with previous Final Four appearances totaling zero, zero, zero and five. Four titles lurk among them, all belonging to one (Connecticut). It’s a flea-market Final Four, and it takes a good spirit to relish flea markets.

In an 84-year-old event rich in the lore of Tar Heels (21 appearances), Bruins (19), Wildcats (17), Blue Devils (17), Jayhawks (16), Buckeyes (11), Spartans (10), Cardinals (10), Hoosiers (eight) and Wolverines (eight) and an event that last year celebrated Tar Heels vs. Blue Devils, suddenly we’ve got Owls against Aztecs. The casual fan might want to cram to master which is which.

It’s a formless Final Four after a formless season in a sport increasingly formless, with 16 different qualifiers for the last four Final Fours. It’s all eccentric and democratic, like they actually made the thing open to everybody, the anti-snobbery Final Four. It will be interesting to see the final scores, both of the games this Saturday and next Monday and the TV ratings next Tuesday. It will be telling to study the ratings while imagining living-room conversations such as:

Where the hell is Florida Atlantic anyway?

I think it’s in Florida, near the Atlantic.

They’ve gone and taken your Final Four and let in Conference USA and the Mountain West. Are you really going to get all Marie Antoinette with your clicker about it?

It’s got four fantastic teams with grand cohesion, which Florida Atlantic used to out-tough a tough Kansas State, and Connecticut used to treat Gonzaga to a rare annihilation, and San Diego State used to restrict Creighton to a puny 23 second-half points, and Miami used to neuter a 13-point second-half deficit against Texas. Their total number of losses (24) actually proves fewer than the total number of losses from the regal 2022 (28), largely thanks to Florida Atlantic, which has gone a country-best 35-3 through a league (Conference USA) that had a gnarly North Texas in it. The sum of seedings in this Final Four stands at 23 (a No. 4, two No. 5s and a No. 9), still shy of the 26 from 2011 (a No. 3, No. 4, No. 8 and No. 11). It’s the third Final Four without any No. 1 seed (after 2006 and 2011) but the first without any No. 1, 2 or 3.

Will you revel in that, America? Will you turn on the TV and sneer that you think you’ve just happened across the NIT, or will you bother to learn the teams? Are you as warmhearted as you say you are, or are you just a crusty old prig who wants to watch old empires while eating your chips and seven-bean dip?

Then there’s that hysterical part of it, the idea that 75 percent of this Final Four hails from places known for obliviousness about sports. South Florida long since has gained note for dispassionate fandom, especially as a place where people have so much else to do in the nice weather, such as running illegal Airbnbs or driving in a peerlessly hostile manner on Interstate 95. Suddenly that region has half the men’s Final Four, counting Boca Raton (Florida Atlantic) and Coral Gables (Miami), which are about 48 miles and several narrow evasions of death apart.

Then there’s San Diego, whose citizens often get accused of having so much perspective in their gorgeous setting that they fail to let a team’s hard loss in sports ruin several days or weeks or months at a time. It’s an irrational way to live, of course, but they pull it off with aplomb.

Actually, the Aztecs consistently draw a sellout 12,414 to their Viejas Arena, except for the occasional game where they report some number like 12,183 and you wonder if the other 231 decided to go out and inhale the blissful air. They got a full 12,414 for Senior Night this year. Miami drew 7,972 for its similar farewell. Florida Atlantic drew 3,130. Connecticut, a kingdom regenerated, has two homes, and it got 10,167 for its last game in Storrs and 15,564 for its last game in Hartford.

Back in Columbus on the first weekend, when Florida Atlantic got through a hard Memphis and a plucky Fairleigh Dickinson, Owls Coach Dusty May said: “We’ve quadrupled the number of fans we had in our gym — in Ohio, for an NCAA tournament game. And these guys have grown a fan base because of the way they are as people.” Maybe they’ve hiked their fan base from small to smallish, luring new fans who might sit around in the year 2200 and recall how they glommed on.

2023 NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket

“Here we are,” San Diego State Coach Brian Dutcher told reporters without arrogance, as it’s hard to brook arrogance when you went clear to age 57 as an assistant before taking even one helm anywhere. “Aztecs are going to the Final Four.” He also said, after his team extended the national favor of expunging from the field the moral question of Alabama: “We recruit and we say our goal is to win a national championship, so we can’t act surprised when we have an opportunity to advance to a Final Four.”

They can’t, but you can.

And then: “It’s like a resort,” 12-season Miami coach Jim Larrañaga said of the University of Miami, drawing news conference laughs before adding, “You’re not actually on vacation because you’re working hard.” He told of running into the Miami cheerleaders and dance team in the hotel lobby at the tournament and finding them studying, so of course he sat down and chatted with them for a while about their majors and so on.

It’s an earthy Final Four like that. It’s got May talking about how Florida Atlantic close-scrimmaged Nova Southeastern of Fort Lauderdale, which just won the Division II national championship and which FAU found to be “the best-pressing, hardest-playing team we’ve ever seen, and when we beat them in a scrimmage, we said we’ve got a chance to be pretty darned good.”

Yeah, that’s this Final Four: You might learn you don’t want to go messing around with those Nova Southeastern Sharks. You might learn about peasantry and possibility and gather such pearls as this from May, about his players: “They weren’t afraid to lose today and go home. They’re not afraid of failure.” You can learn a lot from that, if only you’ll extract your nose from the air and look.