Thursday, April 5, 2012

Four Things Missing From the Final Four

By Adam Russell

After watching this year's Final Four and NCAA championship game, I started to think back on the games and asked myself, "What was different about these games from previous ones?" At first, there was no clear answer; but the more I thought, the more I started to reminisce about Final Fours of the past, both recent and distant, and the more I started to notice the differences. Five of them, in fact. Not all the differences are pronounced — some are subtle — but they all are things I decided I missed from this year's tournament finale.

1. Duke

I missed the Blue Devils being in the Final Four, not because I'm a Duke fan, but because I'm quite the opposite. Without them playing on the last weekend, I really had no one to root against. I can't really pinpoint why, but I really don't care for them. I like Coach K, and I've like some of the players his program has produced, but I just can't root for them. In my sports fandom, they're like the Yankees or the Raiders. I couldn't root for them if my life depended on it.

It's probably because of their success overall. Since 1986, they've been to the Final Four more times (11 compared to eight for both Kansas and North Carolina) and won more titles (four compared to three for UNC, Kentucky and UConn) than any other school. The fact that they weren't on the cusp of a title only to lose made the Final Four a little uninteresting. Sure, it was great to see them get knocked out of the tournament early, but there's nothing like seeing a team you dislike come so close to winning it all and then get knocked off. Unfortunately for me, that wasn't the case this year.

2. A Mid-Major

After having Butler in the Final Four the two previous years, VCU joining them last year, and George Mason in 2006, there weren't any unheralded underdogs to root for this year. Let's be honest — most college basketball fans would give one of our eyes to see (pun partially intended) a mid-major win it all, something that hasn't been done since Marquette's upset of North Carolina in 1977 and only eight times since the tournament's inception in 1939.

Everyone loves to see the little guy win, especially when not too many people give them a chance. It would have been great to see Ohio or Marquette win their Sweet 16 games and then pull off the upsets in the Elite Eight. One of these days, we'll see a smaller school win it all, but we'll have to wait another year for that chance.

3. Billy Packer

Say what you will about the guy, but he was a genius at analyzing a basketball game. Sure, he had his controversies and grating personality, but he knew what he was talking about. And, from a former broadcaster's perspective, he actually took a breath occasionally to let the other announcers talk. I have nothing against Clark Kellogg as an analyst — I think he does a fine job — but the dude needs to give space for someone else to get in a comment.

I noticed it the most during the championship game when it seemed like it was the Clark Kellogg Show with two other guys who happened to have microphones. During the Final Four games, Steve Kerr actually had some good things to say, but he was stifled by Kellogg on Monday night. Another thing that drove me nuts was Kellogg's need to validate everything that Kerr said — "That's exactly right, Steve," or "I agree with you completely, Steve." Let the guy have his own comment, for Pete's sake! But I digress.

Billy Packer was a staple of Final Four TV, doing color commentating for 33 consecutive years before CBS gave him the pink slip in 2008. While the majority of those years were spent in a two-man booth, he still knew when to speak and when not to, and his comments were always geared toward the finer aspects of the game, not simply pointing out the obvious, which seems to be a trend among network analysts these days.

4. Third-Place Game

I know this hasn't been played since 1981, and it was never televised, but just having that one extra game for the Final Four losers to play was actually pretty cool. It gave those two schools that had worked so hard to get to that point one final shot at a positive end to their season. Besides, in this day of televising every sporting event known to man, it would be a money-maker for the NCAA and the network to have one extra game to show on TV and sell tickets for. It would also give the halftime show crew a little more to talk about ("Let's recap the third-place game played earlier this afternoon…").

I think those kids deserve another game — heck, why do you think the NIT has stuck around and the CBI and CIT were created? People love to watch college basketball, no matter the matchups or what's at stake, and kids love to play basketball.

So while this year's Final Four and championship game weren't as compelling to me as some in years past, it still was a good weekend of college basketball. The Kansas/Ohio State game was particularly enjoyable, and the title game was exciting at times. And while two of my four "misses" from this year's games won't ever come back, maybe the other two will return next year and give me even more reasons to love the Final Four. But, then again, who needs any more reasons?

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