Below, five takeaways from an Elite Eight on Sunday that wasn’t as good as Elite Eight Saturday, but still plenty enjoyable — and helped put together arguably the best Final Four of the modern era.
Think about it: Every team that will play Saturday night in Indianapolis has already gone to a Final Four … in Indianapolis. The programs have 44 combined Final Four appearances and 15 national championships. Each coach is an established legend with a distinct and different style from the others in the national semifinals.
Duke and Kentucky are the two most polarizing programs in the sport and also have, without question, the two best draft prospects. And both are big men!
Not to mention Bo Ryan and John Calipari, who will square off against each other around 8:49 p.m. ET on TBS on Saturday night, are up to be selected into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. That announcement/determination will come next Monday, when one of them is guaranteed to be coaching for a national title just hours later.
Oh, right, and Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski are going. They’ve been to 19 Final Fours total, and both of their teams won on Sunday. Krzyzewski just tied John Wooden for most Final Four showings (12). This is simply an incredible table we’ve got set for us.
So let’s get to it.
1. The right teams won on Sunday
With Kentucky‘s perfect season still going and Wisconsin (the team most believe is best-equipped to take down UK) in the field, the Final Four got its best possible outcome from a hype standpoint when Tom Izzo’s team and Mike Krzyzewski’s team won. Louisville winning would have been fine, but we’ve already seen a bad offensive Louisville team reach a Final Four (2012) and UK and Louisville play in the NCAAs (2012, 2014) in recent years. Let’s mix it up … by getting Izzo back into his first Final Four in five years. Michigan State is somehow the longshot dark horse — and the only non-1 seed left in the bracket. Duke is Duke.
Either way, when you consider everything now at stake, and what we’re guaranteed to see, this really does feel like the biggest Final Four in the modern era. That’s solidified by the fact that only one Final Four since the tournament expanded in 1985 had an undefeated team (UNLV in 1991) and that year featured three blue bloods: Kansas, North Carolina and Duke. Really, only that Final Four can rival this one in terms of hype, programs and a torrent of story lines from every angle.
Why is this year’s better than 1991? Well, Coach K is bigger now than he was then, when he was still trying to win his first. Izzo has a title and is now in his seventh Final Four, which only trails Wooden, K and Dean Smith. Calipari is the modern-day Jerry Tarkanian, only even more successful and hated. And Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin team has the player of the freaking year in Frank Kaminsky.
Lastly, 1991 had two No. 1s in its Final Four. This year marks the fifth time in the past 31NCAA Tournaments that at least three No. 1 seeds have reached the ultimate weekend. Other years: 1993, 1997, 1999 and 2008, when it was all No. 1 seeds.
2. The Big Ten has two teams in the Final Four for the first time in 10 years
With Wisconsin and Michigan State breaking through, an ironic turn of events after this conference — without legitimate debate — took a step back from what it was in the previous three seasons. No matter, right? Wisconsin has been a top-five team all season and absolutely played to its preseason expectations by earning a second straight trip to the Final Four.
And of course Tom Izzo is more affiliated with winning in March than basically any coach ever except John Wooden and Krzyzewski. Which is wild, because he’s “only” got one national championship in his previous six tries.
But you know what? That 2000 MSU title is the last time a Big Ten team was national champs in hoops. Now it owns half the Final Four field. Will the 15-year drought come to an end on April 6?
3. Michigan State earned its way
Sparty took out No. 2 Virginia, which had a case for a No. 1 seed, then beat No. 3 Oklahoma, which had a top-five defense this season, then eliminated Rick Pitino — he of seven Final Fours to his name — and the No. 4 Louisville Cardinals. MSU, because it’s a 7, had to do it the hard way. Sparty put to bed an amazing streak. Louisville was up by eight points at halftime. The past 94 times that U of L led by six or more points at the break, it won each time.
Not on Sunday. So yes, MSU earned its right to be playing Duke on Saturday night. How much respect does Izzo command? No one will be saying MSU isn’t worthy of hanging with the other three teams, even though this is amounting to one of, if not the best, coaching jobs of Izzo’s storied career. Branden Dawson is the only borderline NBA player on that roster.
And to think, the season started like this back in October.
4. Okafor only OK, yet Duke still moves on. That’s a great sign for Duke.
Interesting that Jahlil Okafor, who was the best freshman in college basketball this season and may well be the No. 1 overall pick in June’s NBA Draft, managed just 16 rebounds, 15 points, three blocks, one assist and have five turnovers down in Houston. He wasn’t pedestrian, but he wasn’t outstanding. He didn’t even make the five-man all-region team.
So if Duke got by a talented Utah team and an ever more talented Gonzaga team without needing Okafor, it’s a big boon. Because if Duke has two more games still coming, I promise you he’ll put up at least 25 points, 20 rebounds and five assists, no matter the opponent after Michigan State.
Also, how about this stat:
5. The longest Final Four drought in ACC history is over
Notre Dame and Louisville couldn’t crack through, so leave it to Duke to become the first ACC team since 2010 to reach the Final Four … when Duke did it. That was of course the last Blue Devils national championship, too. The Atlantic Coast Conference had never gone this long, dating back to the 1960s, between Final Four appearances. Pretty remarkable, right?
And as a side note, Duke’s win put to bed any chance that this year’s entertaining foursome of Elite Eight games would statistically chart at the closest since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Duke’s 14-point win over Gonzaga bloated the average scoring margin to 7.3 points, which is relatively close for four games but not near the top five most thrilling regional finals in the past 31 tries.
You might be surprised to learn it was just last year, with a 5.0 average margin of victory/defeat, that took the label of closest Elite Eight in the modern era.