This was not a great Final Four. The semifinal doubleheader was one of the worst of all time.
This was not a great NCAA tournament from start to finish — the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and National Semifinal rounds all left a lot to be desired.
Yet, the Final Four and the NCAA tournament still left us with great tastes, special memories, remarkable plot twists, and lasting, iconic moments that own a permanent place in the March Madness (and, for the Final Four, April Anxiety) pantheon.
So what if the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and National Semifinal Saturday all fell short of possibility, potential and promise? We had that magical first weekend and one of the finer championship games of all time.
To the very end, the 2016 NCAA Tournament — capped by its Final Four in Houston — evaded the easy and clean conclusion, the obvious storyline, the result which most naturally fit a linear progression of logic.
We were supposed to see first-round upsets, and we did… but not to Tom Izzo. He doesn’t lose to the Middle Tennessees of the world in the round of 64.
Well, not until this year.
We knew that matchups and certain components of teams could be exploited. For instance, Purdue was vulnerable in the face of an opponent with a strong backcourt, and Virginia was vulnerable if Malcolm Brogdon did not take charge of his team’s offense. However, we didn’t expect the Boilermakers or Cavaliers to attain double-figure leads midway through (or later in) the second half, only to watch them evaporate in separate shocking collapses.
Iowa State was the team which was supposed to undress Purdue’s backcourt. Michigan State was the team which would (again) magnify Virginia’s limitations.
Nope — the NCAA tournament surprised us in the way it so often does. We know this tournament will throw us a curveball every year, but the source of the curveball is often the mind-blowing part of the equation. We think that Team X can pull off a big shocker for reasons A, B and C. Instead, Team Y over here collects those reasons and uses them to great effect. Arkansas-Little Rock and Syracuse were Team Y this past month.
We knew Kansas historically shoots itself out of the NCAA tournament… but Perry Ellis didn’t figure to be the guy who most centrally faltered when the Jayhawks needed a basket in a close game.
We knew the Big 12 has problems in the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, and that Baylor’s internally contentious and ultimately distracted performance against Yale was not particularly remarkable. This, however, made it that much more shocking when West Virginia — a Bob Huggins-coached team — drifted through a blowout loss to Stephen F. Austin, prompting big man Devin Williams to say WVU didn’t take SFA seriously. No one expects that attitude from a Huggins operation.
We knew that late-game leads weren’t safe… but not a 12-point lead with 35 seconds left, Northern Iowa.
We knew a double-digit seed would have a chance to make a deep run… but not Syracuse.
We knew that a Final Four semifinal could turn into a blowout. After all, a No. 1 seed was playing a 10 seed… but no, it was Villanova-Oklahoma which became the complete curb-stomping on National Semifinal Saturday, not Syracuse-Carolina.
We knew North Carolina could run into shooting problems which would ultimately cost the Tar Heels… but not in the paint.
We knew Villanova had a balanced team and offense… but we didn’t know Phil Booth would become the team’s leading scorer on Championship Monday.
The Big Dance and its last acts in the Final Four both turned logic and expectations upside-down. Such a reality is so much a natural extension of the college basketball season which began in November.
The Final Four itself is also the epitome of college basketball in general.
One day (Saturday), 19- to 22-year-olds play two games which create a massive letdown.
Two days later (Monday), those same young men play one game which makes us regret the season’s over, reminding us why we fell in love with college basketball in the first place.
That last note really is the best reminder of all: These ARE only late-teenagers and early 20-somethings, placed on a huge stage and loaded with immense pressure. Absorbing the reality of a bad game — when only one team shows up — enables us to appreciate the times when two teams cooperate in making a little magic.
It’s so much in the nature of college basketball to be like this.
God bless college basketball.