Final Four: Taking the Tourney Two-Step

At the end of this week, the college basketball world will have truly — and fully — descended on Texas. On Friday evening, Dallas' American Airlines Center has hosting duties for the Women's semifinals. About 250 miles to the South-Southeast, Houston's NRG Stadium is gearing up for the Men's semifinals on Saturday.

This is the first time since 1989 that both Division I Final Fours will be held in the same state (that year, they were actually hosted by the same extended metropolitan area). And I believe that it's the fourth closest setting for the concurrent events (1989, 1997, and 2005 were closer in distance). With so much hooping presence in such a condensed area, I thought it would only be fair to look at some trends from each set of quartets.

Welcome to the Hoedown!

Of the eight teams showing up in the Lone Star State, four of them will be newcomers to the Final Four experience. For the three headed to Houston and the one going to Dallas, this appearance means something different to each of them.

For the Miami men, it's an addition ... and a validating return. For the last 50 years, this school has grown its sports profile. First, baseball took hold in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes made their initial NCAA "Diamond" tournament in 1971, followed by a College World Series berth in 1974, and the first of their four championships in 1982. A year-and-a-half later, Howard Schnellenberger's plan to turn around Miami's mediocre football program came to fruition. The school won the first of its five gridiron titles.

Now, Jim Larranaga is hoping to establish "The U" as a hoops haven. After guiding the men's program to its first Elite Eight appearance last year, he's taken them to the next step. On the 17th anniversary of Larranaga stewarding George Mason to its only national semifinal berth, the veteran coach has repeated the feat in South Florida. Can another monumental step be surmounted Saturday?

For the San Diego State men, it's a validation. The Aztecs' journey to Division I was a fairly long one. After stints in the NAIA and Division II, the Southern California stalwart finally joined the top ranks at the end of the 1960s. Up to the turn of the century, tourney bids were few and far between. In 1999, that started to shift. After getting fired from Michigan, Steve Fisher found his way to the Pacific Coast, hoping to build a program that could compete on a national stage. Over Fisher's tenure, the Southwest's SDSU (not to be confused with South Dakota State University) earned eight tickets to the March Melee. However, even with a couple rosters boasting future NBA champion Kawhi Leonard, the Aztecs only got so far as the Round of 16.

Brian Dutcher, Fisher's successor after the longtime coach retired in 2017, hadn't fared much better over the last few seasons. However, signs of improvement were showing. The SDSU squad of 2019-2020 was destined to grab the program's first-ever Number 1 seed. Alas, COVID happened. So, going into this tournament, it appeared the Aztecs were destined for another Sweet 16 finish. But this squad has stifled their way to other ideas. After shutting down the bracket's top overall seed, followed by the preseason Big East favorite, the team has reached the exuberance of "unmarked territory", and the program is getting some overdue recognition.

For the Florida Atlantic men, it's an awakening. The tournament is known for a few items that turn up every once-in-a-while. One of those odd occasions is the lesser-known school that makes a Cinderella run. Now, several schools found their nose out in front for three games, but couldn't break through that glass ceiling known as the Elite Eight. For those coaches that do, the world might just become their oyster.

Over the last 20 brackets, these surprises have rode in on names such as Jim Larranaga (see above), Brad Stephens, Gregg Marshall, Shaka Smart, and Porter Moser. Dustin May now joins that list. The fifth-year leader found a path to mold a second-ever tournament appearance into a Final Four journey. This moment has become a source of pride in Boca Raton, as well as a source of hope for teams around Conference USA. It very well may be fleeting. This moment for May could lead to a main stage in the near future. While he has the mic, though, could he steal the show and complete the voyage those other coaches couldn't?

For the Virginia Tech women, it's about remembering their groove. Like a lot of teams that kind of fade into the background of college hoops, the Hokies sported a period of where the good far outweighed the bad. From 1994-2006, the program earned 9 NCAA tournament berths. Former head coach Bonnie Henrickson was at the crux of that run, leading the team to 20-plus wins in each of her seven years of guidance and a Sweet 16 appearance in 1999. The shine faded, though, after Henrickson left for Kansas. The team cratered over time.

Under Dennis Wolff, the Hokies started to show life in 2016. He would not get the chance to build a pattern of success, and Wolff's loss was Kenny Brooks' gain. The current leader has developed a budding force in the ACC, lifting the program back up to a Big Dance acceptance level in 2021. This season marks the first 30-win campaign, #1 seed, and, now, Women's Final Four berth in the school's history. Who knows if VA Tech reaches the final hurdle? Who knows if this run will lead to other opportunities for Coach Brooks? What Tech fans hope is that this isn't the latest in a litany of one-time dreams (Oregon State, Washington, Cal, Syracuse, Texas A&M, etc.) and the start of a journey that keeps running it back.

Hey, Stranger. Good to See Ya Back 'Round Here.

In April of 2008, LSU earned a trip to the Women's Final Four. It was the fifth straight appearance for the program. Through all of their success, there were changes. Legendary coach Sue Gunter started the streak in her final season on the bench. Pokey Chatman took over and guided the majority of the Tigers' successful run, but left in controversial fashion. Van Chancellor, already a four-time WNBA and Olympic champion, came back to college to finish out the fifth and final trip. Even with stars such as Temeka Johnson, Seimone Augustus, and Sylvia Fowles leading the way, the Bayou Bengals could never crack the code of getting to the title game, let alone winning it all.

At the time, there was no thought in anyone's mind that this vaunted program would take a decade-and-a-half to return to this stage. Yet here we are. Fifteen years later, LSU has finally returned to the national semis. All it took was a three-time champion coach who decided to go back home. And with Kim Mulkey's know-how, maybe the Tigers will finally take that final step upward.

If 15 years seems like a long time, try a double. In April of 1993, Iowa celebrated the fortune of hosting the Mideast Regional and knocking off powerhouse Tennessee by participating in its very first Women's Final Four. Led by future Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer, the Hawkeyes lost an overtime heartbreaker to rival and co-Big Ten champ Ohio State. The foundation looked to be set for a long-term stay in contention. In actuality, the moment was fleeting. The team faded to a 2nd Round loss in 1994, sub-.500 the season after, and a new regime in short order. Iowa's stayed somewhat relevant, but hasn't had that flash of brilliance ... until now. All it took was a Ringmaster posing as a do-everything guard.

A few weeks back, the Big Ten Women's Tournament was held here in Minneapolis for the first time. I decided to go to Saturday's semifinal round for one reason ... to see Caitlin Clark in person. Now, as an Iowa State alum, I basically make bitter beer faces at anything positive for the Hawkeyes. But this was different. I had to get a seat to see the show. Five minutes (and three long-range bombs) in, there was only one thing I could say in seeing the Des Moines product ... "Worth the price of admission." Clark (30.0 ppg, 11.0 apg, 5.8 rpg in the tournament) can carry a team to a title. If so, it should put her in that rare air that names like Miller, Swoopes, Griner, and Wilson occupy.

Enough Game to Fill a 10-Gallon Hat

There are two clear favorites going into both sets of semifinals. In Houston, UConn will walk in with a confidence that belies their performance. The Huskies weren't necessarily on everyone's radar to start the campaign. They were unranked in the preseason AP poll. They remedied that after the first week of play. Then, they kept winning. A 14-0 start lifted the team to the No. 2 ranking in the country before a New Years' Eve loss at Xavier. Sure, there were a few struggles along the way. However, getting outside of a rugged Big East schedule seems to have kickstarted that early-season feeling.

UConn dominated the West Region, beating their opponents by an average of 22.5 ppg and 12.3 rpg. It helps that they're shooting 49.6% from the field and 41.8% from deep. The combination of smalls (guards Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson) and talls (posts Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan) have provided the best of balance to this point. Can they continue it to reach a title-holding plateau that very few programs have matched?

In Dallas, South Carolina is rolling into town with Division I's longest winning streak (men or women). The Gamecocks impressed as they finished off a national title run here in Minneapolis, and they've only gotten better this time around. Aliyah Boston has a chance to earn her second consecutive Player of the Year Award. Zia Cooke upped her game to replace Destanni Henderson's production. Junior center Kamilla Cardoso has also filled in more gaps on the scoring and rebounding ledgers.

Ironically, the Gamecocks have defeated their tournament opponents by the same average margin as the UConn men (22.5 ppg). The rebounding difference, however, has been pretty staggering (19.3 more rpg). And they've been winning better for longer (+29.4 scoring margin, +20.8 rebounding margin during the season). Right now, Dawn Staley has this program trending towards the becoming next dynasty of the sport. Two more wins will mark the first repeat and undefeated champion since the Connecticut women in 2016. To step closer to that tier of UConn and Tennessee status, grabbing another trophy checks a key box.

It's the biggest weekend of the college basketball season, and they say everything's bigger in the Lone Star State. Here's to hoping that the stars shine big and bright "Deep in the Heart of Texas".

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