Wow! I definitely didn’t see that one coming. Who would’ve thought my hand-picked Kentucky Wildcats would’ve shot themselves out of the tournament with a 4-for-32 three-point display over the weekend? With three No. 1 seeds out, visions of an attractive “Final Four” were quickly diminishing. If not for Duke’s win over Baylor last Sunday, we could’ve been staring at a “Final Four” devoid of any No. 1 seeds for just the third time in NCAA history.

But Duke pulled it out and now the Blue Devils will have to be one of, if not the favorites to cut down the championship nets next Monday in Indianapolis, right? Well, not so fast.

If you’ve been keeping up with this year’s tourney, you’ve seen some of the most entertaining and unpredictable basketball that’s ever been played in March and scheduling Duke to just take home title honors is a mouse trap that I’m not willing to stick my hand in.

The lack of an overwhelming favorite is actually a good thing but people always seem to find the negative in the unfamiliar. I had a friend (we’ll call him Joe for short) tell me the other day that this is the worse tournament he’s ever seen in his life. Joe’s also a bit of a drama king, but I understood his point. He wasn’t dogging the tourney because of poor play or an overabundance of blowouts (because it’s actually been the exact opposite) but it’s hard for casual fans to keep up with schools they can hardly identify on a map.

So while teams like Northern Iowa, Cornell and Saint Mary’s were “dancing” and advancing, Joe was steadily stewing and boo-hooing. Once Kentucky, Ohio State and Kansas State were ushered out of the “Big Dance” over the weekend, Joe really went crazy. He then went on to dog this year’s crop of “Final Four” teams due to their lack of top seeding without even bothering to recognize reality. This year’s “Final Four” — Michigan State, Butler, West Virginia and Duke— may not be the power quartet that most fans were hoping for, but a closer look reveals that this is probably the best scenario we common-folk fans could’ve gotten.

All four teams began the year ranked in the top 10 of ESPN/USA Today’s preseason rankings. And Michigan State (No. 2 ranking), Duke (No. 8 ranking), West Virginia and Butler (No. 9 and 10) all solidified their preseason rankings with outstanding seasons and a combined 108-23 regular season record.

Aside from Michigan State, all three schools won their conference tournaments and although there isn’t an Evan Turner or a John Wall left to hug the spotlight, the coaching star power more than makes up for the lack of superstar recognition. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, West Virginia’s Bob Huggins and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski are some of the best coaches in any sport at any level and even Butler’s Brad Stevens is young enough, 31, to be considered as one of better up-and-coming coaching prodigies.

Could we have gotten a more attractive set of “Final Four” teams? Probably. Are we going to miss the TV coverage of some of the nation’s brightest stars? Maybe. Will we still receive a competitive championship weekend? Absolutely.

When Kentucky fell last Saturday I had to sit back and rethink what was actually going on. With all the favorites on summer vacation, this tourney is now anybody’s to win. Sure, I would’ve loved to see a predominantly freshmen-led team conquer the unlikely, but this is what the NCAA committee had in mind when they created this whole one-game elimination tournament thing.

“March Madness” is based more upon parity amongst schools rather than prestigiousness and although there is no Syracuse, Kansas or Kentucky left to pencil into your printed bracket, the upcoming weekend is wide open for even the most unlikely champions to be crowned. And as unattractive as the circumstances may be, even a guy like Joe should be able to appreciate that.


Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO