Commentary

Epic Final Four fits Big Easy

Originally Published: March 26, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

They don't do understated in New Orleans. The flavors are bold, the jazz is smooth and the funerals are festive.

Even the NFL penalties are groundbreaking.

From the Superdome to the alcohol/mixer ratio, the Big Easy majors in big and minors in nothing. This is a place that greets a Christian period of abstinence with a day of excessive carousing without a touch of irony. Where party hosting is a civic duty and a good time a moral obligation.

All of which makes New Orleans the perfect setting for this particular Final Four.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThere's no place more suited to host this season's Final Four teams than New Orleans.

These last two seasons have been fun. Butler and VCU were terrific stories and their historic runs emblematic of the true parity permeating college basketball in the age of the one-and-done.

But for New Orleans you need brash.

You need big.

You need Bam!

And this Final Four is epic, a whirling dervish of a concoction that could make Mardi Gras look like a pocket-protector nerd convention by the time the weekend is over.

Kansas. Kentucky. Louisville. Ohio State.

It is a four-course menu even Emeril would appreciate, serving up a heaping plate of history with side orders of conference power, budgetary excessiveness, All-America talent, coaching prowess, rabid fans and a nice little dose of simmering hostility for dessert.

The only thing this Final Four doesn't have, in fact, is a Cinderella. The good news: Someone probably will dress up like her on Bourbon Street anyway.

Back in October, we had an inkling we'd end up like this. The power conferences looked stacked with talent, buoyed by the unexpected return of players at some places and the promise of prodigious talent at others.

But if college basketball has taught us anything in recent memory, it is that what looks likely in October doesn't always pan out in March. And there were moments this season that the careening course appeared the more likely path for each of these schools (well, at least three).

Kansas lost to Davidson; Ohio State dropped three of five games in February amid infighting and finger-pointing; Louisville had more players in Ace bandages than uniform for the early part of the season. And well, Kentucky did lose on a crushing buzzer-beater at Indiana.

Instead of flopping like a bad soufflé, this quartet managed to marinate into a fine etouffee and now will be served up to a basketball mess hall starving for some fine dining.

It does not get much finer.

Let's break it down.

By history: Kansas plays in Phog Allen Fieldhouse, which sits on Naismith Drive; a guy by the name of Bob Knight once suited up for Ohio State, which has reached 11 Final Fours; and UK and Louisville are in the commonwealth of Kentucky, where "basketball" is an optional box for religious affiliation.

By team: Thirteen national championships (at least one for each school) and 49 Final Four berths.

By conference: There is not an outlier in the bunch. This is all big league -- Big East, Big 12, Big Ten and SEC (and yes, there is a strange irony that the ACC, which fancies itself a basketball conference, isn't represented).

By budget: Louisville, the most surprising member of this particular Final Four, ranked last year as the nation's top revenue generator among college hoops teams, raking in $40.9 million for the school. Kentucky ranked sixth and Ohio State, disproving the football-school notion, was eighth.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesKentucky's Anthony Davis is one of the big-time talents headed to the Big Easy.

By player: Three of the five first-team All-Americans on most ballots (Jared Sullinger, Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson), not to mention the two players who clanked heads for the player-of-the-year hardware (Davis and Robinson).

By coach: All four have won or played for at least one national championship, and two, Rick Pitino and John Calipari, rank as the only men in their profession to take three schools to the Final Four (though two of Calipari's were later vacated).

And then there is the extra dash of cayenne pepper thanks to a rivalry that has grown so heated and nasty it has threatened to unseat Duke and North Carolina among the game's best (or worst, depending on your point of view). Kentucky and Louisville are separated by about an hour's worth of highway and a Grand Canyon of vitriol, a long-simmering intrastate disdain that has gone nuclear thanks to two head coaches who would rather wear off the rack than play nice with one another.

Appropriately, the two universities that hug the outskirts of the Bourbon Trail will bring their fevered fan bases for a turf war on Bourbon Street.

Then again, where else could this particular Final Four be played?

This is not a Final Four for the meek or mild.

It is bold.

It is brazen.

It is big.

In other words, it is made for the Big Easy.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

Dana O'Neil | email

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