A useless answer figured to follow.
A useless answer did not follow.
The former junior college and Division II coach launched into a story of buying an overpriced fluffy sort in a shopping mall pet store because his three daughters pleaded and of liking that dog plenty, but then he said: “But I’m also a guy who has bought a dog from the Humane Society, and those are those dogs more like street dogs. They’ve got about 48 to live” — and by 48, he meant hours.
“They live with a little more urgency,” he continued, “and they understand accountability and discipline a little better. They’re fortunate. They’re not entitled because they were in the pound, man.”
“Not entitled” could describe this whole funky, Duke-less, North Carolina-less, Kentucky-less, Kansas-less occasion. Auburn (30-9) vs. Virginia (33-3) in the first semifinal Saturday and Texas Tech (30-6) vs. Michigan State (32-6) in the second, both pit the unentitled against the unentitled. Even the presence of Michigan State, which has reached an unmatched eight Final Fours in the past 21 years, doesn’t alter the truth that everybody here is at least something of a rescue dog.
It’s a Final Four without famed “one-and-done” players, a Final Four built off the painstaking, day-to-day, years-long quest for improvement. Even perhaps its best player, Michigan State leader Cassius Winston, when asked to critique the player he was upon arrival in college, began with, “I would say clueless.”
Nobody ever described Duke’s Zion Williamson as such.
It’s Auburn in a first Final Four, Texas Tech in a first Final Four, Virginia in a first Final Four in 35 years one year after one of the biggest nose-dives in history and Michigan State after a slew of injuries and a howling bracket containing Duke.
It’s the Final Four where Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl, asked about his “first” Final Four, replied, “One of the things that I’ve been doing in answering that question is reminding that, while this may be my first Final Four and the Big Dance, in 1994 we lost in a national championship game to Cal State Bakersfield, and then in ’95 we won the national championship against Cal State Riverside.”
“So this is actually the third time I’ve been here.”
That’s because a long Division II stay at Southern Indiana turns up among his stops at Stanford (assistant), Iowa (assistant), Milwaukee, Tennessee and Auburn, which all wrap around his turn as blackballed for snitching about a rival’s recruiting and that all precede Auburn’s presence in the FBI follies of September 2017. The trash-talking bureau did not allege that Auburn cheated but did prompt the arrest and dismissal of assistant Chuck Person, which did seem to imperil the program. And now Auburn just tore through the three winningest kingdoms — Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky — even with a major injury (to Chuma Okeke) smack amid.
It’s the Final Four where Beard, speaking about all the coaches from the less-lucrative divisions who convene annually at the Final Four, said: “I’ve been in a lot of rooms where it’s two guys in each bed without the comforters because you got more people on the floor with the comforters and then one maybe in the bathroom bathtub with the pillows. We put eight deep before in a Marriott Courtyard, I promise you. The problem is in the mornings with the towel situation. . . . But we used to come to the Final Fours and bring our own towels — true story.”
He said all that because his path of assistant-hood and head coaching and Division II and junior college includes Incarnate Word (assistant), Abilene Christian (assistant), North Texas (assistant), Fort Scott (Kansas), Seminole State (Oklahoma), Texas Tech (assistant), South Carolina of the American Basketball Association, McMurry, Angelo State and Little Rock. Now he coaches the quintessence of a rescue-dog team that reached the final eight last year, lost six of its top eight scorers and went at least a big rung further this year.
Movingly, he said: “I hope that there’s some coaches like myself out there that see this and don’t ever give up. Don’t let anybody ever tell you where you can coach and what you can and can’t do.”
It’s the Final Four where Virginia Coach Tony Bennett has the lone No. 1 seed yet still lives near the cloud of Virginia’s inexplicable 74-54 loss last year to Maryland Baltimore County, the only time — play that violin again! — a No. 16 seed has beaten a No. 1. “You think differently,” he said. “Through any adversity, there’s such wisdom in it.”
Yet that loss served only as the epitome of something more entrenched — Virginia’s recent-years track record of March thuds — that make it that rare rescue dog with high rankings. Just Friday, Bennett and leading scorer Kyle Guy dredged up the 2017 atrocity between No. 5 seed Virginia and No. 4 Florida. Late in Virginia’s 65-39 loss, Bennett put Guy and fellow leader Ty Jerome in the game to grant them a full feel of its particular agony.
That game featured such wretched scores as 40-17, 54-28 and 65-36, and Guy said, “At this point it’s probably 60-25” — meaning it was so bad he actually envisions it reached 60-25. “He just said: ‘I’m putting you guys in. This is the beginning of your time.’ ”
Michigan State has had recent teams everybody fancied at the start of Marches — such as 2016 and 2018 — but this wasn’t like that. This team had injuries to Joshua Langford, Nick Ward and Kyle Ahrens before its less-is-more breakthrough. Winston’s Big Ten player of the year season exceeded what even Coach Tom Izzo guessed for it, even though Izzo once guessed great basketball-IQ matters from Winston. Michigan State is here via a game-winning shot against Duke from a . . . former walk-on.
This is the star-starved Final Four, where Texas Tech senior transfer Matt Mooney said, “I would have never thought that something like this would happen.” Auburn senior forward Horace Spencer said, “We walked into the stadium, and I really didn’t know it was a football stadium we were playing in, so it definitely caught me off-guard.” Beard said, “I think that’s what these four teams are — teams.”
It’s the Final Four of the under-recruited and the earnest, where Bennett has five players who took redshirt years and said of all the shoulder chips: “I think that’s so important. We’re fortunate to find guys that are better than people think. . . . I think we always try to find guys that are sneaky good — that’s the word we try to use — and go after them. Sometimes they’re coming in . . . with that hunger and the right mind-set, and I think that’s important.” It’s where Beard said, “I didn’t get paid until my fourth job.”
And it’s where Izzo said of Winston: “You know, I think the greatest thing about it is he’s earned his way. He’s gone through the process. He’s gone through a tough year. He’s made some commitments to himself and the program. You know, you watch the growth.”
Here’s the Final Four of growth having been watched — always a particular pleasure with rescue dogs.