A delightfully unpredictable college basketball season has given us some stunning twists and turns heading into Saturday’s Final Four games at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Already, we have seen three teams from the Lone Star State (Baylor, Texas, Stephen F. Austin) outlast Duke in the NCAA Tournament field.
We watched a fourth Texas team, SMU, rebound from its Selection Sunday snub by members of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee and make enough noise in the NIT to suggest the Mustangs had more to offer as participants in the 68-team bracket than one-and-done invitees Brigham Young, Colorado, Xavier, Iowa, George Washington or Massachusetts.
We have seen Kentucky’s latest version of Fab Five 2.0 take down the descendants of the school that, in 1991, originated the concept of freshman-first basketball: Michigan.
So, what else can happen that would make the first Final Four to visit DFW in 28 years particularly memorable to the record-setting crowds headed to the games at JerryWorld?
Let us count the ways:
Transplanted Texans take title: Kentucky’s all-freshman starting lineup includes three players who spent last season playing high school basketball in Texas: forward Julius Randle and twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison. That is a higher percentage of Texas schoolboy talent in the lineup (three of five, 60 percent) than UTEP featured in 1966 (one of five, 20 percent) while winning the lone NCAA title by a team from the Lone Star State. The only Texan in the lineup for what was then called Texas Western was center David Lattin, a Houston resident. Those history-making Miners, who featured the first all-black starting five to win an NCAA title, had three Texans on the roster: Lattin and two reserves from El Paso, David Palacio and Togo Railey.
Lowest-seeded champion: Kentucky, despite starting the season at No. 1 in the AP preseason poll, tumbled to a No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region by losing 10 games before receiving an at-large berth from the selection committee. If the Wildcats cut down the nets, they would join Villanova (1985) as the only No. 8 seeds in tournament history to claim an NCAA title. No lower-seeded team than Villanova has taken home the trophy.
Larry Brown factor: The last time the Final Four came to DFW, in 1986 at Dallas’ Reunion Arena, Larry Brown coached a college basketball team (Kansas) that posted a 2-0 record against the eventual national champion (Louisville). If UConn cuts down the nets Monday at AT&T Stadium, Brown will have done it again. Brown, the SMU coach, oversees a team that swept UConn in two regular-season meetings but did not receive an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Larry Brown factor II: If Kentucky knocks off Florida in Monday’s title game, Brown will become a historical footnote to the 2014 Final Four for a different reason. The Wildcats are 0-3 against the Gators. But Kentucky could win the national championship by taking down Florida in the fourth meeting of the year between the SEC rivals. The last NCAA champion to post a winless record against a conference rival before beating them in a title game was Brown’s 1988 Kansas team. The Jayhawks fell twice to Oklahoma before beating the Sooners 83-79 in the championship game in Kansas City, Mo.
Texas Trifecta: Connecticut is undefeated in Final Four games in the state of Texas, claiming NCAA titles in San Antonio (2004) and Houston (2011). A victory in Arlington would complete a Texas Trifecta for the Huskies.
Payback champion: Florida (36-2) could avenge its only regular-season losses during a national title run by defeating Connecticut (30-8) in Saturday’s semifinal match and knocking off Wisconsin (30-7) in Monday’s title game.
One for the aged: Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, 66, can become the oldest first-time coach at the Final Four to lead his team to a title. But not the oldest champion. That distinction belongs to former UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who was 68 when he led the Huskies to the 2011 title.
Running the gauntlet: A title by Kentucky would require five consecutive victories over Final Four teams: three from the 2013 Final Four before this year’s group was set (Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan), and two from this year’s Final Four (Wisconsin, Florida/UConn winner).
MFFL factor: Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie, a Dallas native, began his 13-year NBA playing career with the Dallas Mavericks in 1997. He’s the lone coach in Arlington with a Mavs connection. Based on Mavs owner Mark Cuban’s recent take that future NBA stars would be better off playing in the Development League than the NCAA, it would be heartwarming to see the leader of the “Mavs Fan For Life” contingent present the NCAA championship trophy to Ollie, the former Mav, if UConn prevails. But I can’t see NCAA administrators approving that.
Lowest moment overcome: Saturday’s semifinal between Wisconsin and Kentucky assures that one school will play for a national championship Monday despite a regular-season loss to one of the worst teams in its own league. Kentucky dropped a 72-67 decision on March 1 at South Carolina (14-20), which finished 13th in the 14-member SEC. Wisconsin trumped that by losing at home to Northwestern 65-56 on Jan. 29. The Wildcats (14-19) tied for 10th in the 12-team Big Ten and have the only basketball program from a BCS conference that never has qualified to compete in the NCAA Tournament.