Two more teams advanced to the Final Four on Sunday. Their stories are a contrast, even as similar as the programs may be in recent times.
Most expected that Duke would be a Final Four team this season. Take a team that was good last year, though flawed, subtract good but not irreplaceable players, and add the likes of Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, and that was a natural expectation. Many years, that’s what they expect in Durham. When the Blue Devils ran out to a big start, the idea that they would be a Final Four team only grew, as did the talk that Okafor could be National Player of the Year.
Duke came down to earth a few times this season, but by the end of January, you had a pretty good idea that this team was indeed capable of making such a run. The Blue Devils won at Wisconsin, Louisville and Virginia – three road wins that no one was going to be able to touch this season. They didn’t cruise through the season undefeated, but were very dangerous. They had the first player that Mike Krzyzewski has dismissed in his storied tenure in the program, and have since gotten better – especially defensively.
On Sunday, Duke got off to a good start against Gonzaga, but the Bulldogs naturally made it a ballgame and even took the biggest lead an opponent has had against Duke in the entire tournament – 38-34. The Blue Devils closed the game on a 13-1 run for a 66-52 win in a game where they turned the ball over just three times to win despite shooting 37.5 percent from the field. It is the 12th Final Four for Krzyzewski, matching the legendary John Wooden.
On the other hand, no one expected Michigan State to be in the Final Four. As noted in this space a week ago, most figured the Spartans would be a run-of-the-mill NCAA Tournament team and little more. This was not one of Tom Izzo’s best teams in terms of talent and experience, and a rebuilding season (by Izzo standards) appeared to be in order. An early 81-71 loss to Duke in the Champions Classic – noteworthy now since the teams will have a rematch on Saturday and three of the Final Four teams were in that event – helped further shape that idea, as did the fact that the Spartans came up short in each of their toughest non-conference games: Duke, Kansas (in Orlando) and at Notre Dame (overtime), before losing in overtime to Texas Southern at home.
The Spartans went 12-6 in the Big Ten – which was down, but off a terrific year so that didn’t mean much – and got to the championship of the conference tournament. They figured to at least be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, after knocking off Georgia, Virginia, Oklahoma, and then Louisville 76-70 in overtime on Sunday, they have completed the most unlikely Final Four run in Izzo’s storied tenure. Besides all of what’s been mentioned, the Spartans were 2-5 in overtime games before Sunday, while Louisville won their only overtime game this season. In other words, the Spartans had some tough losses along the way, including in the championship game in the conference tournament.
The Spartans didn’t do this with All-Americans. They did it on the backs of talented players without nearly as much buzz who were just tough and had a will to get here. Their big three of Travis Trice, Branden Dawson (who had a big stickback in overtime that sealed it) and Denzel Valentine won’t have many All-America votes. They have had to overcome plenty of adversity, including injuries, but they have won plenty of games, and this time around won when they counted.
Last year, the Spartan seniors were the first ones under Izzo not to go to a Final Four. It is a remarkable note of consistency, indeed. Now he can start doing that once again, thanks to an unlikely bunch that’s heading to Indianapolis.
Coaching news will probably dominate the landscape this week, as often happens, and Sunday was a pretty good precursor of that. Leading the way is DePaul hiring back Dave Leitao, who guided the program before it moved to the Big East. Leitao coached in Chicago from 2002-05 before leaving to become head coach at Virginia, making the NCAA Tournament in 2004 and the NIT in 2003 and 2005. He has most recently been an assistant coach under Frank Haith at Missouri and then Tulsa.
It looks like St. John’s may have their next leader, as reports have surfaced suggesting that NBA Hall of Famer Chris Mullin has been offered the job and may well take it. It’s an interesting move considering he has never coached, but his credentials don’t need to be established, especially since he has spent time in the front offices of the Golden State Warriors, where he played in the NBA, and the Sacramento Kings. He won Big East Player of the Year three times in his college career.
One name that surfaced for St. John’s is Danny Hurley, but Rhode Island has signed him to a new six-year deal that will keep him in South Kingston for now, at least. In his three seasons at the helm, the Rams are 45-49, including a 23-10 mark this season. The Rams figure to be among the preseason favorites in the Atlantic 10 next season, a long way from where the program was when he took over.
Rick Barnes formally said goodbye to Texas yesterday, and along the way noted that athletic director Steve Patterson wanted him to change up his staff in order to stay on. Barnes opted not to do that, even though his staff offered to quit, a story of tremendous loyalty on the part of the 17-year head coach.
Utah State has its successor to the retiring Stew Morrill, as they are hiring longtime assistant Tim Duryea. From 1999 to 2001, he was the head coach at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, before he became an assistant to Morrill. He is the longest-tenured assistant in program history, so he is well-equipped to pick up where Morrill is leaving off.
One story that slipped under our radar on Saturday is at The Citadel, where Duggar Baucom will take over as the new head coach. Baucom leaves VMI, a long-time rival school, and one where has had some success that has included postseason play.
Last, but not least, there’s an unfortunate story that may seem a bit outside the realm of college basketball, but matters nonetheless. TNT’s Craig Sager has had a recurrence of leukemia, which he has battled for about a year. Sager’s son said his dad was also battling a flu bug. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Craig Sager as he continues this battle.
The CBI takes center stage tonight, as the finals begin with the first in the best-of-three series. UL Monroe travels to Loyola (Ill.) for a 8 p.m. Eastern tip.