This Friday, Indiana will return to Philadelphia for an NCAA tournament game against North Carolina. Some of the Hoosiers’ greatest moments as a program — plural — have come in the City of Brotherly Love, a subject we wrote about here.
It raises the larger point: Some schools and coaches simply love particular cities and regions at tournament time. Even though the faces and names of the players change, a coach has been able to capture and then replicate March magic in a specific setting over time.
It’s the kind of thing that makes one marvel, standing in awe at the ability of a place to re-create a mindset conducive to (first) optimism and then actual achievement.
Let’s consider some of the foremost examples in what will be a video-rich presentation.
Start with this bit of wisdom from a veteran of many NCAA tournaments as a coach:
Digger Phelps: "Send me West, I'll do the rest." Not sure what that means, but I am willing to send the Silver Fox out West. I'll even pay.
— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) March 2, 2011
Digger Phelps has liked the idea of a Midwestern or Eastern team going to the West Region, to get away from distractions and focus solely on basketball. This worked for Georgetown in 1982 and 1984. The Hoyas went to the West and made the national championship game, winning it all the second time around. One Big East school, however, perfected the art of going West and doing the rest: Connecticut.
The Huskies won three national titles and made four Final Fours by going through the West Regional. They won two of their national titles and made three of those Final Fours by going through one city: Phoenix.
In 1999, UConn beat Gonzaga in Arizona’s capital city to make its first Final Four trip:
The Huskies were sent West again in 2004. The bracket did open up for them, but they still had to take care of Alabama in the Elite Eight. The Valley of the Sun bathed Jim Calhoun in a warm glow:
The Huskies did have to play the 2009 regionals in a different building — University of Phoenix Stadium, site of the 2017 Final Four — but they still had to fly into Sky Harbor International Airport and make their stay in the Phoenix metro area. They once again made it count, beating Missouri for another Final Four in the Calhoun era:
UConn didn’t go through Phoenix in 2011, but it still went West and won the regional in Anaheim, defeating Arizona to make Calhoun’s last Final Four.
When UConn won its four national titles, another Southwestern state became the Huskies’ home away from home. After the first national crown in 1999 in St. Petersburg, Florida, UConn won its next three titles in the state of Texas. The Emeka Okafor team won in San Antonio in 2004. The Kemba Walker team won in Houston in 2011. The Shabazz Napier team won in 2014 in Arlington.
The Southwest has been Connecticut’s NCAA championship gateway — not exclusively, but predominantly.
Another particularly strong connection with NCAA tournament cities is manifested by the Duke Blue Devils.
In 1986, Mike Krzyzewski reached his first Final Four by beating Navy in the East Regional final:
In 1988… and 1989… and 1990… and then here in 1999
… Duke won the East Regional in East Rutherford, New Jersey, at The Meadowlands. The Blue Devils owned a distinct comfort zone in that building.
That wasn’t, however, Duke’s only cozy relationship with certain places in the NCAA tournament.
In 1992, Duke went from Greensboro (opening weekend)
to Philadelphia for the regionals (and a certain game you might remember)
to Minneapolis for the Final Four and a national title:
In 2001, Duke traced that same path, capping it off with another national championship in the Metrodome, this time against Arizona and Lute Olson:
Ten years apart, North Carolina registered two of its most special NCAA tournament triumphs… in the same building, the Erwin Center in Austin, Texas.
The first one came in 1990, as Dean Smith kept alive his streak of consecutive Sweet 16s. As an 8 seed, Carolina upset No. 1 Oklahoma to notch a 10th straight Sweet 16 berth. The streak moved to 13 before being snapped in 1994:
A decade later, Bill Guthridge — Dean Smith’s longtime assistant and his successor as head coach — guided the Tar Heels to the Final Four in Austin… as an 8 seed.
Uncanny, right? Two NCAA tournaments, both as an 8 seed after hugely frustrating regular seasons — both salvaged under different head coaches in the exact same place.
As something of a postscript, it’s fascinating that as much as certain cities have been good-luck charms for programs and coaches, they’ve also been haunted locales for others.
Arizona lost as a 2 seed (to Steve Nash and Santa Clara) in 1993, and it lost as a 1 seed to Wisconsin in 2000… both in Salt Lake City.
Arizona lost West Regional finals in 1998, 2003, 2011, and 2014… all in Anaheim.
North Carolina and Dean Smith lost to Marquette in the 1977 national championship game, and to Indiana in a crushing Sweet 16 setback… both in Atlanta’s Omni.
Duke lost to Kentucky in the 1998 Elite Eight, and to UConn in the 1999 national championship game… both in Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Horror, not just heaven, marks certain cities for NCAA tournament schools and coaches.