With the Duke Blue Devils sent packing over the weekend, there will be a contingent of people downplaying this year’s Final Four. It’s understandable, as college basketball’s biggest star in years is likely to hurl his amateurism into a dumpster, opting for the 2019 NBA Draft.
Would the upcoming weekend be better with Duke participating? Sure. It would be intellectually dishonest to suggest the Final Four is better off not featuring the country’s most electrifying team. A similar thought could be had with the Auburn Tigers going to this portion of the Big Dance instead of the more nationally relevant Kentucky Wildcats.
However, it doesn’t mean these remaining teams fail to bring stories, drama, whatever and fun to the table.
As people scream about TV ratings, as if they own stock in CBS or something, if you enjoy college hoops, there’s still reason to tune in on Saturday. The plot might have turned sideways in the Elite Eight, but it remains thickened.
It’s like (SPOILER-ish) when The Walking Dead wrote off Rick Grimes. People assumed the already then-faltering show would become an even larger abomination to the senses. Somehow, though, it’s actually become the best it has been in years. So, uh, Zion is Rick Grimes and Auburn is playing the role of the Whispers or something…
The Virginia Cavaliers, a year removed from being on the wrong side of history, seek redemption. Of course it’s worth noting their suffocating defense, coupled with methodical offense, often makes for hogwash of entertainment, but the majority of the sport’s history rests more alongside narratives than it does its on-the-court product.
How about BBQ Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Tigers? It’s not so much a redemption story for Pearl, but his team navigating a treacherous SEC schedule all season, only to reach the NCAA Tournament to lose Chuma Okeke headed into the Elite Eight, then upsetting Kentucky. That is fun. It’s not Cinderella-levels of bonkers; though the absurdity of it all — and we mean all of it — is wild.
The Texas Tech Red Raiders, featuring one of the hottest young coaches in the country in Chris Beard, should be a casual hoop head’s dream. Not only are people getting the first glimpse of possibly the next “actual successor” to the old wave of legends like Roy Williams and Coach K — who, presumably, will retire at some point — on college basketball’s biggest stage, but the Red Raiders feature a likely top-five 2019 NBA Draft selection in Jarrett Culver.
In fact, there are NBA Draft gurus who believe Culver is a better prospect than every player not named Zion Williamson. So, in theory, the No. 2-ranked NBA Draft prospect is going to be featured on a national stage. I won’t claim to be a genius here, but that seems like it should be compelling.
Finally, there’s the Lifetime Movie special known as the Michigan State Spartans. Will Tom Izzo win another national title, cementing his place among the greats? Can he keep his head and not go ballistic on an unpaid laborer while millions of people are watching? Will a reporter ask about his handling of Michigan State’s several scandals over the years, only to be told it’s not the appropriate setting to discuss such serious matters?
Those are only the most simplistic, baseline narratives entering this year’s Final Four. Nevertheless, it’s surface-level, cocaine-fueled fun.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Duke and Kentucky and Zion and hamburgers on a Saturday while drinking a hipster beer. All of those things would have made for a potentially historic end to the college basketball season. It’s unfortunate the idea of that is gone, but it doesn’t mean all hope for entertainment is lost.
Avoid entering the weekend distressed that the stars you know aren’t participating. Appreciate the fact that a few players have a chance to become one.
Ratings. Casual NBA fans dropping in to claim Player-X is great because of a two-game sample. All of that is nice. It legitimately is. And this isn’t a “please like my sport” column. I’m less here for the actual product as I am for the human interest stories floating around it.
But if you can’t see the chance for beauty in the Final Four, with all the known commodities and the wonder of the unknowns, you’re certainly going to leave Monday evening disappointed. Not because college basketball let you down. Because you didn’t even give it a chance.
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