College Basketball Nation: 2013 Final Four Things To Know

Four for Four is our quick look at a few things you need to know right here and now about the 2013 Final Four. We did it last April too, but I can’t remember why the introduction was so long.

"Guards win in the tournament."

There are a lot of cliches in sports, and pretty much all of them drive me crazy -- grit, toughness, any and all war-related analogies, we're taking it one day at a time, we move on to the next play, etc. -- mostly because they often make it maddeningly difficult to get to the actual thing itself. How are you taking it one day at a time? What kind of discipline does that entail? How can you move on to the next play when failure is so fresh in your mind? What about high-level athletes fosters that mindset?

But if we're going to use a cliche, it better at least be true, rather than a nonsense series of words designed to prevent anyone from having to actually say anything. Many seemingly pedestrian cliches began as simple, obvious truths.

Here's one: Good guards win in the NCAA tournament.

[+] EnlargeTrey Burke
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesMichigan's Trey Burke is proof that elite guard play can be a huge advantage in the NCAA tournament.
It is easy to bristle at this, because it feels like the basketball equivalent of some of baseball's silliest arguments. Actually, no, I don't want that gritty guy who bunts for a living and plays chill music in the clubhouse; just give me the best players, please.

Thing is? The best players in this year's Final Four most frequently happen to be guards.

  • Trey Burke isn't just the best player of the tournament, or the best guard, he is the national player of the year. He's just … complete. He scores efficiently when he needs to, he drives and kicks to one of the Wolverines' number of shooters, he handles, he hits step-back jumpers (not all of them as crazy as Kansas, but still). Mitch McGary has made Michigan a legitimately challenging physical proposition on the front line, but Burke has had this offense humming pretty much all season.

  • Russ Smith and Peyton Siva lead the way for Louisville, not only by attacking and scoring and starting every play on the offensive end, but by being some of the handsiest and most unrelenting steals-creators in all of college basketball. When those two create turnovers, particularly in the backcourt, Louisville's offensive efficiency soars.

  • Then there's Syracuse, which features one of the nation's best assist men in guard Michael Carter-Williams -- whose 6-6 frame has always screamed "shooting guard" but whose innate passing ability has made him one of the more unguardable forces in the tournament -- paired alongside savvy vet Brandon Triche. Together, their size at the top of the 2-3 is an absolute nightmare for opposing coaches and players.

Of course, none of these players got to the Final Four by sheer individual skill. Louisville might not get here without Gorgui Dieng. Michigan certainly doesn't without McGary. Syracuse's back line is nearly as imposing as its front, with C.J. Fair really blossoming into a dangerous all-around player. Wichita State's best players -- the aforementioned Early and Carl Hall -- are both 6-8.

But as we saw in Michigan's win against Kansas, it really does help to have a guard who (a) knows what he's doing, and (b) knows he knows what he's doing. Having Burke on their team is an incredible advantage for the Wolverines in a big game, because he can handle it all the time, facilitate offense, get scoring when he needs to. Smith and Siva have some of that too, but they're great for entirely different reasons -- their unique ability to speed the whole thing up, rather than slow it down or make it more manageable. Certainly, none of the four teams at the Final Four would be here without good guard play, which is also obvious. But the extent to which each team relies on that position is a clear theme -- and, if we're willing to admit it, some proof of a hoary old cliche.
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.

[+] EnlargeBill Self
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsBill 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.

(Hat tip: Skate Carter, via r/CollegeBasketball)

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