Through the 64 little dramas, and the two weeks of heartbreak and hallelujahs, the NCAA tournament boiled down to a fairly predictable quartet of surviving heavyweights.
Some are touting this Final Four as “epic,” a term generally reserved for gladiator spectacles.
Fitting, perhaps, since that’s what these next three games could turn into, especially if they keep pace with the fortnight of contentiousness that’s led up to them.
This has been an historic NCAA tournament from the first full day — when three double-digit seeds scored upsets — to the regionals weekend, when every possession seemed like an alley fight.
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But this preamble would have felt like contrived suspense on the way to the foregone coronation of King Kentucky except for a gift from Notre Dame on Saturday.
At 38-0, Kentucky is absurdly talented and versatile and tenacious. But the Fighting Irish offered the most convincing evidence that Kentucky also might be vulnerable.
The Irish took Kentucky down to the final seconds before falling 68-66 in a game that had the highest ratings for a college basketball game in cable television history.
It’s been like this the whole way. Despite the complaints that the games are too defensive, this tournament has been so competitive, and the talent level across college basketball has become so deep and widespread, that I’d argue that the game is as good or better than it’s ever been.
The regional finals offered further evidence to the slender margin between those cutting down the nets and those left in tears.
The losers may make one mistake, may miss one key opportunity, and the winners make them pay for it.
Notre Dame was nearly flawless. But Kentucky overcame the Irish by not missing any of their nine shots in the final 12 minutes of the game.
Louisville tied Michigan State at 65 when center Mangok Mathiang somehow got a bricked free throw to fall with 5 seconds to go in the game. He missed the second free throw attempt that could have won the game, though, and Michigan State went on to win in overtime.
Gonzaga was ready to tie Duke at 53 with just under five minutes left in the game — except that dead-eye shooter Kyle Wiltjer missed an open layup. Point blank. Impossible to miss. A bunny.
And Duke responded as champions must, by capitalizing, by sensing a weakness and exploiting it. Gonzaga never got to that 53rd point as Duke outscored the Zags 13-1 the rest of the way.
That’s how it’s done at this stage.
And that’s what we’re in for this weekend in a Final Four featuring three No. 1 seeds in Kentucky, Wisconsin and Duke, and a No. 7 seed, Michigan State, coached by Tom Izzo (seven Final Fours).
Both semifinals have history and subplot adding to the drama.
Michigan State and Duke played each other in Indianapolis in the Champions Classic in November, with Duke winning 81-71.
And Wisconsin and Kentucky also met in last year’s national semifinals, with Kentucky winning 74-73. Kentucky is college basketball’s most efficient springboard to the NBA (15 first-round picks since 2010), and their leading scorers in that game last year, James Young and Julius Randle, both turned pro after their freshman season.
Wisconsin’s two top threats, at this point, are Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, a pair of upper classmen. Perhaps the veteran experience in the Final Four will pay off for the Badgers.
The four remaining teams can play different styles, can score and defend and rebound. So it may come down to which team makes that single game-changing mistake.
Yes, Kentucky is going for history, seeking to go 40-0 on the way to the national title.
But the real winner in this epic tournament has been college basketball.