McGrath: Final Four offers Goodfellas, not Cinderellas

Wednesday , March 28, 2012 - 3:38 PM

John McGrath

Like the other residents of Busted Bracketville, I've got no stake in the Final Four teams set to play in New Orleans.

My affinity for underdogs is strong, but between Kentucky (seven NCAA titles), Kansas (three), Louisville (two) and Ohio State (one), there are no Little Engines That Could among this bunch.

Cinderellas? Please. These teams are more like Goodfellas in a ruthless power struggle.

Louisville, at No. 4, is the lowest-ranked seed. All the Cardinals did during the regular season was beat 10 NCAA tournament-bound teams before rolling through the Big East Tournament. Their Ratings Performance Index on Selection Sunday was 14, and that was before they eliminated Davidson, New Mexico, Michigan State and Florida.

But just because nobody in New Orleans will have vaulted out of obscurity, as play-in game survivor Virginia Commonwealth did last season, doesn't mean the conclusion of the tournament will lack intrigue.

The 2012 Final Four will be worth watching for the first semifinal game alone: Louisville vs. Kentucky, among the most storied of college basketball rivalries.

How the story evolved is a story in itself.

The teams first faced each other in 1913, and played each other regularly, more or less, until 1922, at which point the rivalry was discontinued for reasons that must have made sense to somebody at the time. Because the late Adolph Rupp, Kentucky's famously cantankerous coach, refused to schedule any school within the Bluegrass State, the Wildcats and Cardinals ended up with a cold war on their hands. It lasted more than six decades.

Finally the selection committee, displaying the sort of fresh-air thinking associated with wisdom, funneled Kentucky and Louisville into the same 1983 regional. With a Final Four berth on the line at Knoxville, Tenn., there was enough electricity in the building to light up midtown Manhattan.

And this was before tipoff, when the pep bands combined to play "My Old Kentucky Home" while the cheerleaders of both schools embraced each other in a chorus line.

Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown was moved by the scene. After watching Louisville recover from a 12-point deficit in the second half to win in overtime Brown pushed the state legislature to pass a bill mandating a rebirth of the rivalry. On Nov. 26, 1983, the 'Cats and Cards faced each other in a regular-season game for the first time in 61 years.

The rivalry is alive and kicking with an annual nonconference matchup, but never has it inspired the passion fans will experience Saturday in the Louisiana Superdome.

Factor Rick Pitino into the mix -- the Louisville coach won the 1996 national championship as Kentucky's coach -- and you've got the trappings of a classic.

The other semifinal, between Kansas and Ohio State, packs a plot line that is gripping on a human-interest front.

Buckeyes coach Thad Matta revealed the other day that he is disabled. His bad back went out on him while he was enjoying a round of golf in 2007, requiring a trip to the hospital for emergency surgery.

In the recovery room, Matta noticed he had no feeling in his right foot. Matta held out hope the nerves would regenerate, but it's been almost five years, and his right foot is still useless.

Tradition calls for tournament-winning basketball coaches to climb a ladder and cut the final snippet of the net. When Ohio State beat Michigan State in the finale of the Big Ten tournament, Matta fulfilled his part of the tradition, confident there were more than enough spotters on the floor to protect him in case he lost his balance.

Will Matta get a chance to climb the ladder in New Orleans? I predict not.

A Final Four should showcase stars, and this Final Four will showcase the ultimate star.

Kentucky's Anthony Davis was unknown to college recruiters during his days as a 6-2 junior guard playing for a small high school on Chicago's South Side. Then he had a growth spurt that can only be called incredible. He went from 6-2 to 6-11 in eight months -- from agile guard to imposing shot blocker -- without losing any of the skills he developed before nature went crazy.

Now he's looking at Louisville, and the latest installment of a rivalry saved by two improbable sources: an NCAA selection committee and a politician.

Think the cheerleaders will embrace again?

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