Correction: A previous version of this column incorrectly reported that the 2001 Final Four was held in Indianapolis. That year’s Final Four games were held in Minneapolis. This version has been corrected.
DALLAS — To many who regularly attend the Final Four, this will go down as a weekend to forget.
The stadium where the games will be played — where the four teams held open practices on Friday — isn’t anywhere close to downtown, which kills off the bustling atmosphere usually felt at the host site.
And sadly, this event isn’t as big of a deal for the players as it used to be. Once upon a time, young basketball players dreamed of following in the footsteps of Alcindor and Walton; Jordan and Laettner; Ewing and Pinkney. Now their dream is to shake hands with the NBA commissioner as early as possible on draft night.
Even the coaches sometimes forget that making it to this weekend is an ultimate basketball dream. Four years ago, when four of his players were taken in the first round of the draft, John Calipari called it, “The greatest night in the history of Kentucky basketball.”
Kentucky fans, still smarting from a loss to West Virginia in that year’s Elite Eight, weren’t thrilled to hear that. Of course, all was forgiven — at least for a while — when Calipari won the 2012 national championship in New Orleans.
On Friday, Calipari experienced open practice at the Final Four for the fifth time as a head coach, although if you read the NCAA record book his 1996 Massachusetts team and his 2008 Memphis team never existed.
Billy Donovan was dealing with day-before jitters at a Final Four for the fourth time during his tenure at Florida. Both men hoped their experience would help them get their teams ready for playing on college basketball’s greatest stage — in a terrible basketball venue. The Final Four hasn’t been played in a real basketball arena since 2004 and coaches are keenly aware of how different it is to play in a football stadium than in a place designed for basketball.
Calipari even used the fact that he wanted an extra game in a dome every regular season as an excuse for cancelling Kentucky’s series with Indiana two years ago. “I owe it to my program to play at least one game in a dome every season so that we’ve experienced it if we play in one in the [NCAA] tournament,” he said back then. “Indiana wants a home-and-home series. I’m not going to commit to that.”
It was one of the more ridiculous excuses ever used to cancel a series, but the fact that Calipari was able to float it says a good deal about how different it is for players to deal with domes.
The other two coaches going through the practices on Friday — Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan and Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie — were doing so for the first time. Many coaches in the past have said that the most emotional moment of their first Final Four comes on Friday because they have a chance to look around and savor what they’ve accomplished. Pregame jitters haven’t set in yet, and there is a realization that just by standing on the court you’ve reached a pinnacle of your profession.
“Not the final pinnacle. There’s still work to do,” said former Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun, who cut down the final net three times in four Final Four trips. “But when you walk on that court on Friday and you look into the stands and see a lot of your peers watching your practice, you realize that this is a special moment in your life.
“It’s a balancing act, though — the whole week. You want your players to enjoy the achievement of getting here. But at some point they have to understand, and you have to understand, that there’s a game to play — two, you hope. You have to put the celebration of your season on hold for a few more days.”
Gary Williams, who took Maryland to the Final Four in 2001 and 2002 — winning the second time around — remembers walking onto the court in Minneapolis in 2001 and feeling emotion welling up in him.
“It surprised me, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I mean, it was an open practice, not even that big a deal in terms of preparation. But I was always one of those guys who went to that practice every year and would sit there saying, ‘Some day I’ll be on the court with my team practicing.’
“Then we got there and there was a little bit of me that couldn’t quite grasp that we’d actually done it. It really hit me hard when we walked out there.”
Wanting to get a hold of himself and put the focus back on preparing for his team’s Final Four game, Williams turned to Billy Hahn, his longtime assistant.
“I figured I’d say something to Billy about the practice plan and that would get me back to focusing,” Williams said. “But when I turned around to say something to him, he was crying. Big help he was.”
Ryan, who is 66 and coached four Division III national championship teams while at Wisconsin-Platteville, couldn’t help but remember those days as he prepared his team to practice and play in building that will seat about 75,000 people on Saturday night.
“I always told my guys from Platteville that I would stay true to them and to what they accomplished,” he said. “I can remember playing championship games in front of 5,000 people. So I don’t know what it’s going to be like playing in front of 75 [thousand].”
Donovan, who has won two national championships, says the thing he has learned from past Final Four experiences is the importance of understanding that this week will not be like any other week for anyone involved.
“You can’t pretend all the extra stuff doesn’t exist,” he said. “You can’t tell the players to treat it like any other week, because it isn’t like any other week. All you can do, really, is tell them to be prepared for what’s going to come and make sure you do what you have to do, and then get your focus back on playing a basketball game.”
Donovan knows it isn’t like other basketball games. The setting is different, the pressure is greater, the logistics — especially this year — are more difficult. Even practice is different.
And, for some, very emotional.
For more by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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