The ultimate survivors advance
We are Chicken Little and the puny piece of poultry is us.
The sky is always falling; the end is always near. We overreact so quickly, we don't even have time for the muscle twitch to hit our knee in order to make the jerk.
If Albert Einstein were alive, we'd have written him off as a loser long ago. After all, it took him seven attempts to get E=mc² right.
Which leads us to the last leg of the journey that will take college basketball to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Florida Gators, Wisconsin Badgers, Connecticut Huskies and Kentucky Wildcats -- or, as we could call them, Left For Dead, Roadkill, Has-Beens and Underachievers, because that is exactly what we did call them at one time or another this season -- will play for the national championship.
Anyone who says they believed in these four teams all along is a liar, or at least a master of revisionist history.
No one outside of the four locker rooms thought this would happen, and, odds are, there were probably a few doubters, or at least a few doubting moments, within the locker room walls, too.
This is the hard-knock-life quartet, four teams that survived as much as they advanced.
"It's a process," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "You can't skip steps. Part of that process is failing fast, sometimes, failing often.''
Start with Florida.
The Gators opened the season ranked 10th in the AP poll, then promptly lost a game to No. 2 to Wisconsin. Down they went to No. 16.
Three weeks later, Connecticut topped the Gators, who fell even further, to No. 19. The team was a hot mess, riddled with suspensions to Scottie Wilbekin, Dorian Finney-Smith and Chris Walker and injuries to Kasey Hill and Casey Prather.
Then there's Wisconsin. We loved the Badgers early. We loved, loved a Bo Ryan team that defied Bo Ryan logic and scored points in abundance. Wisconsin won its first 16, catapulted to No. 3 in the rankings ... then promptly lost five of the next six. The bloom was off the rose.
How about Connecticut? The Huskies' Hall of Fame coach gone, storied conference affiliation over, players lost to the NBA draft, as well as transfers, and they lost the regular-season finale to Louisville. By 33. So long, Huskies halcyon days. Here we come, untamed obscurity.
Finally, there is Kentucky. The Cats had to add a revolving door to their bandwagon to help manage the mass egress. Start the season with the best recruiting class in the nation and a No. 1 ranking -- everyone all aboard. Back-to-back losses to Arkansas and South Carolina, a fall all the way out of the Top 25, and it's women and children first, every man for himself, but somehow, God help you, abandon ship.
So what to make of all this, of this seemingly Fortuitous Four?
Well, for starters, there is nothing fortuitous about any of them. If you have watched the past two weekends, you know that all four teams have earned their way to Jerry World.
Florida figured out how to run with UCLA, then, two days later, how to grind it out with Dayton. Wisconsin ousted a seemingly more athletic Baylor team, then a No. 1 seed in Arizona. Connecticut eliminated second-seeded Villanova and third-seeded Iowa State. Kentucky merely eradicated three-fourths of last season's Final Four (Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan in succession).
But the merit goes beyond these past two weeks. It goes back to the rocky patches, to when the haters and doubters congregated at the virtual watercooler -- the cesspools of message boards and 140-character Twitter rants.
There's a lot of clarity in solitude.
"It takes a lot of character to keep going when nobody else believes in you,'' UConn coach Kevin Ollie said.
Consider when each of these teams began its road to North Texas in earnest. Not when things were easy, but when things were hard.
Florida lost to Connecticut on Dec. 2, in the Gators' first real test with a full lineup -- but they haven't lost since.
"Obviously, it was a tough loss like that, losing at the buzzer,'' Gators coach Billy Donovan said. "But there's things we can look at in the game, right after the game finished, of where we needed to get better and improve. We did a much, much better job going forward.''
Wisconsin toiled through that awful January, then reeled off eight consecutive wins.
Connecticut got its doors blown off by Louisville to end the regular season and lost again to the Cards in the American Athletic Conference tournament for what looked like a surefire quick NCAA exit. Now, the Huskies are playing like a team that believes it is invincible.
And Kentucky, following that dismal loss to South Carolina, roared back to nearly beat Florida in the SEC title game before embarking on its wrecking tour of the 2013 Final Four.
It's not about "adversity" or "resilience," the two most overused buzzwords at this time of year. It's not even about tweaks, twerks or whatever else a coach might like to call it.
It's about blocking out the white noise of praise that confuses the issue and makes a player believe he can, as Calipari colorfully puts it, "poop ice cream."
It's about time and patience, growth and experience. It's about a 30-plus-game marathon of a season that, by its very design and length, is destined to have peaks and valleys.
"You have some players get hot, some players that develop beyond what others might have thought of,'' Ryan said. "I never sell players short. I always think they can get better and be really good by the time they get done. That's why we teach and coach the way we do. Some years, it works better than others.''
It's about knowing that the sky isn't falling.
It's just dropping a few acorns, hoping to knock a little sense into us all.
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2014 FINAL FOUR
When the confetti fell at the Final Four, UConn was the team left bathing in the title glory.