You would expect the crowd at Satisfaction Restaurant and Bar in downtown Durham, NC to be filled with shirts of dark blue in late March, supporting Coach K and the perennial college basketball powerhouse Duke University Blue Devils. Well, not this year.
Walking into the bar, a week after Duke’s second round loss to West Virginia University, no one would be surprised to instead find a more subdued crowd, with a spattering of University of North Carolina fans who undoubtedly strayed into Duke country because either 1) they couldn’t find a ticket to UNC’s game in Charlotte, or 2) they wanted to celebrate their victory in Duke country where they knew it would hurt the most.
Either way, it was clear that last Saturday, basketball fans at Duke were more focused on the for-charity Duke-Carolina Basketball Marathon in Wilson gym than watching eight other schools compete for a spot in the Final Four.
The disappointment that spread through Duke also hit 60 other campuses across the country over the last two weeks of play, as the field of 65 college basketball teams has now been narrowed to four.
For the first time in history, all four #1 seeds have made it to the Final Four. While this may seem like an unimpressive feat (they are the best teams in the country, right?), it goes against something that this tournament has cherished in the past, the underdog winner. Sure the commercials have been proclaiming “There are no Cinderella’s,” but part of what makes the tournament great are teams coming from nowhere and taking down the favorites.
The first weekend of the tournament started off promising, with two #12 and #13 seeds advancing to face each other. #12 Villanova’s entrance into the Sweet Sixteen excited local Philadelphia news to a level unmatched this year. #10 Davidson College took down #7 Gonzaga University in the opening round, and then upset #2 Georgetown University, a team that many (including this editor) thought had a good change to make the Final Four.
Even without the upsets, the games provided excitement. Stanford squeaked by Marquette, Texas held on over Miami (FL), Tennessee went to overtime against Butler, and UCLA survived a scare against Texas A&M.
But as we hit the second weekend of March madness, the tournament’s usual flare for the dramatic seemed to be lost among the forces of reason. It wasn’t just that most of the top seeds ended up winning, but the dominating way in which they won made many of the games dull enough to change the channel.
Sure Louisville “upset” Tennessee, but looking closely at how the Cardinal’s full-court press frustrated a Volunteer team without a serious guard, it’s no surprise the margin of victory was as large as it was.
This is not to say that the top four teams don’t deserve to be where they are now, but a little more parity wouldn’t hurt, would it?
Road to the Final Four
The top seeded University of North Carolina Tar Heels were finally challenged by Louisville in the Elite Eight. The Cardinals made a run to tie the game at 59 midway through the second half before Tar Heels forward Tyler Hansbrough stepped up to take control of the game. Now the Tar Heels will venture out of North Carolina for the first time this tournament to represent the East regional in San Antonio.
Kansas University appeared on paper to have the easiest road through the first four rounds of the tournament. The Jayhawks beat the 16th, 8th, 12th, and 10th seeds in the tumultuous Midwest Region, but the final game against 10th seeded Davidson was certainly no walkthrough. Drawing playful comparisons to the mythical David vs. Goliath, the Cinderella team of the year nearly became the first tenth seed to ever make the Final Four, but a last second three pointer clanked wide left and Kansas survived 59-57.
As hard as it was to see the underdog Davidson lose, it is even harder when one realizes how many opportunities the team missed along the way. Scoring just two points in the first six minutes of the game, and six points in the last seven, it’s unclear whether the team was hit with nerves, fatigue, or both. Guard Stephen Curry went cold from three point range in the second half, though that should take nothing away from his inspired performance during the entire tournament.
Memphis University looked dominant against the Texas Longhorns to earn their first trip to the Final Four in 23 years, after losing in the Elite Eight the past two years. The greatest difference between today’s Memphis Tigers and the one that many doubted a week ago: free-throw shooting. The Tigers appear to have overcome their greatest weakness, going 30-36 against Texas and 26-35 against Michigan State University, both well above their season average of 59.2 percent. Compare this to their close second round match-up against Mississippi State University, where they shot 46.9 percent from the line and edged out a win 77-74.
While this improvement certainly isn’t the only aspect of Memphis’ game that led them to win the South Region, it will be a main factor in their next game against UCLA. The Bruins’ defense is one of the best in the country, and the Tigers will need every free point from the foul line they can get.
UCLA itself had the most troubled road to the Final Four of the four top seeds. They survived a scare against Texas A&M in the second round, and a weak second half almost cost the Bruins against Western Kentucky University. The team nevertheless finds itself in the Final Four for the third year in a row, and is feeling good after dismantling a solid Xavier team. As long as it scores enough to keep up with the talented Memphis offense, UCLA hopes to find itself in the title game for the second time in three years.
Final Four — San Antonio, TX
#1 Memphis vs. #1 UCLA, April 5, 6:07 p.m.
#1 North Carolina vs. #1 Kansas, April 5, 8:47 p.m.