Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Four for Four: Blue bloods in the dog house
By Eamonn Brennan
Four for Four is our quick look at four things you need to know about the 2013 Final Four right off the bat. We did it last April too, but I can't remember why the introduction was so long.
We humans are an incredibly adaptable sort. I'm no anthropologist, but I'm assuming it probably goes all the way back to the dawn of behavioral modernity, when we fanned out from the cradle of civilization into every nook and cranny of this vastly diverse world. It was cold in some places; we needed fur and fire. It was too warm in others; we needed to block the sun. When you begin with a few thousand folks in Africa and get to 7 billion in 50,000 years, inflexibility isn't part of the bargain. You do what it takes.
Bill Self's Kansas Jayhawks and the rest of the sport's "bluebloods" will be Final Four spectators this year.
That's probably a pretty lofty way to start a post about the Final Four, so let's use this example: I was in L.A. last week, and when I talked to a couple of people about the morning smog -- that infamous pale yellow cloud that blankets the city most mornings -- they treated it like it was the weather, just another cloud formation to be acknowledged and shrugged off. Really, they hardly seemed to notice it, no more than I would notice another cold day in Chicago. They were used to it. Inured.
Or, to put an even simpler way: You don't know what you've got 'til its gone.
This is sort of how I feel about the following information:
The 2013 Final Four is the first since 1985 -- the dawn of the modern 64-team tournament format -- that has not featured at least one of the sport's traditional blue bloods.
There are six college hoops blue bloods, as we currently define them (in no particular order): Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, UCLA. They're the elite of the elite, the kind of programs who blend historical success and influence with sheer cultural force, and thus maintain the highest set of expectations each and every season. Those expectations are simple, even singular: Win the national championship. Anything less, even in this diffuse modern era of the sport, is unacceptable.
Which is probably why it makes sense, on some level, that we have had at least one of them in the sport's marquee event for each of the past 27 years. It goes deeper than coaching or recruiting; there is always a wind at these programs' backs, always fans and boosters ready to shell out to get it done, new coaches to be overpaid and facilities to be built. They should be good every year. They have all the advantages.
But at the same time, it's a little bit crazy, because so is the NCAA tournament. Even the best, most monied, most obsessive fan bases see their programs wax and wane over various decades, or even from year to year. Even blue bloods in the midst of fundamentally good seasons -- see, say, 2012 Duke -- will have tragic flaws, or get the wrong first-weekend matchup, or both. Indiana lost an entire decade after Bob Knight was fired; UCLA just hired Steve Alford. (No, seriously! That happened! If Fran McCaffery ever loses his job at Iowa, he can rest easy knowing that if he waits six years and loses to Harvard in the first round of the tournament, the Lakers will be his for the taking.) Point is, wild stuff happens every year in the NCAA tournament, chaos always ensues, and yet for 27 straight seasons at least one of the six traditional hoops elites has participated in the Final Four. Until this season.
I'm not sure what that says about this Final Four, if it says anything, at least as it pertains to quality. Honestly, doesn't Louisville feel like a blue blood these days? Don't get me wrong -- it isn't. You have to have a certain level of all-time success to earn a spot in that pantheon, and Louisville isn't there historically. But right now? With one of the best coaches in the history of the sport, and (probably) the nation's swankiest arena, and a big, obsessed fan base, and five Elite Eights in the past seven years? The Cardinals might not earn the all-time nod, but with all that Rick Pitino has going there these days, that's the only component missing.
Syracuse is the same way. Legendary and iconic coach, huge pool of obsessed fans, yearly runs at the Big East title, NBA talent -- if it talks like a blue blood and its fans feel unduly hated like a blue blood, does it become a blue blood? Plus, it's not as though Michigan is a basketball upstart, or Wichita State isn't a regional power that sells out all of its home games.
Maybe it just says these distinctions are fuzzy, and becoming more so by the day. Or maybe it says that while the tournament is celebrated for its unpredictability, and rightfully so, if you picked one or all of Indiana, Duke and Kansas to go to the Final Four in this year's bracket, you didn't choose poorly. You went with the odds, and the odds said we had to have at least one of the sport's six traditional powers, precisely because we always have.
You get used to things and start taking them for granted; it's hard to remember that even my ability to type this (let alone put it) onto this thing that broadcasts it to your eyeballs at a moment's discretion is actually kind of a miracle. For as long as I've been cognizant, the Final Four has included at least one of the blue bloods. That there isn't one this year feels a bit like a miracle, too, simply because we've gotten so used to it.