No Zion. No Kentucky. No North Carolina. No Kansas. Only one top seed, which had not been to the Final Four in 35 years. Three first-time Final Four coaches. Two first-time Final Four schools.
This was not the sexy Final Four we have become accustomed to in college basketball. Michigan State was the biggest brand name, with Cassius Winston being the most high-profile player in Minneapolis.
Most of the 2019 Final Four came from Southern or Southwestern locales. Virginia’s ACC identity gave it a basketball-first culture, but Texas Tech and Auburn are football schools first and foremost.
Cadillac programs. Blue-blood stature. Villains. Superheroes. Media-magnet protagonists. They were missing from the Final Four. Purely in terms of the juicy, easy, familiar plot points production trucks love to milk to no end, this was not the soap-operatic Final Four CBS hoped for. No one denies this.
Yet, what is that familiar saying again? Ah, yes: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
The unsexy Final Four — the one bereft of the megawatt celebrities or the teams everyone loves to hate — turned in some very sexy and attractive basketball.
How impressive was this Final Four, which had two national semifinals up for grabs entering the final 80 seconds, and delivered a genuine classic in the national championship game?
Let’s compare this Final Four to the others this decade and century.
2010 had two rousing games, but West Virginia-Duke was a dud. 2019 was better.
2011 had Butler-UConn. Next.
2012 had three competitive games with brand-name schools, but was there an iconic moment frozen in time which anyone outside the Commonwealth of Kentucky will remember? You tell me. That was a very good Final Four, but I’m not sure it belongs above 2019, and if forced to make a verdict, I would rate 2019 higher.
2013 is the Final Four this decade I could clearly put above 2019. Wichita State very nearly pulled a massive Final Four upset, but a walk-on named Tim Henderson came from nowhere to save Louisville’s hide in the first national semifinal. Syracuse and Michigan played a close and fierce second semifinal. Michigan and Louisville then played a national title game every bit as good as Texas Tech-Virginia. 2013 had a sensational Final Four, Saturday and Monday.
2014 had a dud between UConn and Florida. Kentucky-Wisconsin was a great Final Four game, and the final was close and interesting the whole way between UK and UConn.
2015 had the memorable Wisconsin upset of Kentucky, and Duke’s late rally in the title game, but again, one of the three games was a runaway, with Duke easily handling Michigan State. 2019 was better.
2016 had a super blowout and a comfortable win on National Semifinal Saturday. The title game, of course, was one of the all-time greats between Villanova and North Carolina, but the full Final Four was ordinary because Saturday was so bad.
2017 was a lot like 2019: Three coaches made their Final Four debuts, and two programs made their first visits. The two semifinals were both close. The title game was tense, exciting and interesting… but I would put Texas Tech-Virginia over Gonzaga-North Carolina if we are evaluating the quality of the national championship game.
2018 involved a Villanova romp. There wasn’t much to remember from that Final Four other than Donte DiVincenzo being incredibly great.
That’s the current — and soon-to-end — decade.
What about the rest of the 21st century to date?
The 2000 Final Four had one of the worst Final Four games ever, Wisconsin-Michigan State.
2001 was a very good Final Four, also played in Minneapolis. Those four teams had so much skill, as great a star-powered Final Four as we have ever seen. All three games were interesting and loaded with great shotmaking. However, Texas Tech-Virginia was a better title game than Arizona-Duke. (The 2001 semifinals were on par with 2019.)
2002 had a horrible national title game between Indiana and Maryland, though the Kansas-Maryland second semifinal was hugely entertaining.
2003 had one of the biggest Final Four blowouts ever: Kansas over Marquette recalled Michigan State destroying Pennsylvania in 1979.
2004 had the best semifinal doubleheader this century: Georgia Tech over Oklahoma State and UConn rallying late to beat Duke. The title game, though, was a disaster.
2005 had the inverse of 2004: terrible semifinals but a glorious title game between North Carolina and Illinois.
2006 was easily the worst 3-game Final Four this century. Yuck.
2007 had the foul-marred Roy Hibbert-Greg Oden semifinal between Georgetown and Ohio State, but a good title game between Ohio State and Florida.
2008 provided an iconic March Madness moment with Mario Chalmers’ late triple against Memphis. The collection of three games was good, but not spectacular, especially since this is the only Final Four to ever have all four No. 1 seeds. This Final Four wasn’t a bust, but the semifinals didn’t live up to the hype.
2009 was the North Carolina invitational.
All told, the 2019 Final Four was and is clearly one of the four best Final Fours this century, with 2013 being the only Final Four I can clearly put above it. You could make arguments for 2001 and 2017 as being better, but only 2013 has — to me — an especially convincing case.
No Duke, no Carolina, no Kentucky, no Zion, no Coach K, no Roy, no Calipari.
Yet, this Final Four stacks up favorably against most of the 20 Final Fours played this century.
Not bad for a bunch of unsexy schools without the brand-name recognition.
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