Whereas college football clings to not just a four-team playoff (which I really don’t mind in itself), but to the more pervasive and profound flaw of not providing more showcase matchups between national title contenders in its regular season, college basketball could not be more different as the Final Four arrives.
The charm, the appeal, the magic of college basketball — the essence of what makes the sport so interesting — comes from the realization that so many teams have a chance to make the Final Four and end their season with satisfaction.
The Final Four has meant for a long time that four college basketball teams, not just one, end their seasons happy in most cases — not every year, but most. This parallels college football in the old poll-and-bowl era before the Bowl Championship Series and the Bowl Alliance and Bowl Coalition.
In the poll-and-bowl era, teams were often happy to win their cherished bowl game: Nebraska and Oklahoma fans in the Orange Bowl, SEC fans the Sugar, Southwest Conference teams the Cotton, Big Ten and Pac-10 teams the Rose. Notre Dame, Penn State, Miami, and other independents loved winning those various bowl games if they were allowed to play in them. Four or five teams (with the Fiesta Bowl also into the mix in 1982) could win a New Year’s Day bowl and feel great about the season, regardless of the final post-bowl rankings.
That has gone and probably won’t come back in college football.
Thankfully, the Final Four will continue to preserve that reality in college basketball.
Having four points of access to a great season, not just one, naturally expands the degree of opportunity each college basketball team possesses in its pursuit of the sport’s Holy Grail. The mid-major school or the historically downtrodden high-major program can both achieve a supreme goal more quickly than in football, where the climb is tougher and steeper.
Given this reality, the past decade of college basketball — flowing from what George Mason did in 2006 — has been a wonderful time for the sport, viewed in relationship to this larger notion of “Final Four access.”
In 2010, West Virginia made its first Final Four in 51 years (since Jerry West days). Butler made the first of two straight Final Fours and national title games under the remarkable Brad Stevens. Joining Butler in 2011 was VCU under Shaka Smart.
The mid-majors kept coming, with Wichita State nearly making the national championship game at the 2013 Final Four. Gonzaga isn’t a mid-major, but it did represent a transformational example for the mids and was cheered by mid-major soul brothers when it finally crossed the Final Four threshold in 2017. Loyola-Chicago gave the Missouri Valley another Final Four team this decade last year.
High-majors with largely barren basketball histories have also shown this decade that the Final Four is possible for those who believe… and get the right coach. Bo Ryan got Wisconsin back to the Big Show in 2014 after realizing over more than a decade what he needed to break through. Oklahoma and Lon Kruger snapped long Final Four dry spells in 2016 — 14 years for OU, 22 years for Kruger. Villanova and Jay Wright had their own period of immense frustration before 2016. Now they are regarded as a blue-blood, much as Gonzaga went from mid-major at the start of the century to high-major in “middie” clothing.
In 2017, though, this decade of fresh Final Fours reached another level.
The 2017 Final Four had two first-timers — South Carolina and Gonzaga — plus a school which hadn’t been to the Final Four since the very first one: Oregon (1939). This year’s Final Four is a lot like 2017: Auburn and Texas Tech are first-timers, with the SEC providing one of the two new entrants. Virginia didn’t snap a 78-year Final Four drought the way 2017 Oregon did, but 35 years is way too long at an ACC program which cherishes basketball success.
Auburn and Texas Tech are the out-of-nowhere teams at this Final Four. That doesn’t mean they aren’t really good — they have been excellent in this tournament. That doesn’t mean their coaches are second-rate. Bruce Pearl has been very good for a long time, and Chris Beard is creating a meteoric rise in the profession.
The out-of-nowhere label comes from Auburn having given no indications before the SEC Tournament that it was ready to make this run, and from Texas Tech being picked seventh in the Big 12 in preseason polls.
Beyond that, however, Auburn and Texas Tech didn’t have clear upward trajectories to point to when the 2017 Final Four took place. Both programs were in wait-and-see mode as Pearl tried to take the next step and Beard assessed what he had in Lubbock.
The ascendancies of these two programs have been swift. They weren’t the decade-long progression of Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, or the six-year search of Tony Bennett at Virginia, knocking on the door several times before busting it down this year.
They happened relatively quickly, in two-year bursts. South Carolina in 2017 was much the same way.
So many programs in the Southwest, the West, and the Deep South have not tasted success at the level Auburn and Texas Tech are enjoying this week in Minnesota. The quickness with which the Tigers and Red Raiders have advanced in college basketball — much as South Carolina burst onto the scene in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, and Oregon put to rest a very long drought at the Final Four — should give dozens of programs hope that their moment, with the right coach and the right formula, isn’t 10 or 15 years away. It could be just around the corner.
This fresh decade of college basketball has a fittingly new Final Four with original, vibrant colors.
College hoops has a lot of problems, but the new faces at the sport’s biggest party sure isn’t one of them.
You can listen to and subscribe to the CBB Today Podcast on iTunes right here.
As always, don’t forget to subscribe to our college basketball, NCAA Tournament and NBA Draft email newsletter below. It’s the only way to survive the impending alien invasion.