The semifinals of the NCAA basketball tournament are today.
Hard to believe the season has gone this fast. (I think that every year now.)
Though I kind of like the first weekend of the tournament better because of its potential for upsets (Lehigh over Duke, Norfolk State over Missouri this year), I had a friend who once said his favorite day was the first day of the Final Four. He thought it was more fun than the championship game that comes two nights later.
The coaches and players for all four teams are really jacked up, and the electricity from their fans fills the arena an energy that is hard to match. And they all enter the building with hope.
Plus, the semifinal games are usually -- but not always -- better than the final. Just the enormity of what is at stake on Monday night often affects play in in the championship game. Holy cow! We’re here! Now that do we do? Let’s not screw it up!
Shooting can be off -- even Larry Bird had an mediocre night shooting (7-of-21) when his Indiana State team lost to Michigan State in 1979 -- and the teams can be tentative in the early going because they have had only one day to prepare for their opponent. Connecticut and Butler combined to shoot only 26.1 percent from the field last year. (In case you were wondering, anything under 43 percent is below average these days.)
It doesn’t always turn out this way, but it happens.
In the semifinals, the teams have had a week to get ready, and the result is a matchup of two well-prepared teams. They’re well-prepared because although not all the Final Four coaches are among the all-time greats, they’re all pretty good in their own way.
So I think my friend had a good point.
The first of today’s semifinals is particularly appealing to me. I used to live in Kentucky and think I may be one of the few sportswriters who actually had both Kentucky and Louisville as my beats.
My second year in Louisville, I got the assignment from the Courier-Journal to cover the Cardinals. Denny Crum was the coach, only a few years removed from his time as an assistant under John Wooden at UCLA. The second year I covered them, the Cardinals made it to the Final Four. Also there in San Diego was Kentucky.
Joe B. Hall was the coach of the Wildcats and had the line of the tournament. When Wooden announced his retirement after the win over Louisville, Hall, who had succeeded the legendary Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, was asked whom he would recommend for the job.
“Me,” Joe said. “Why ruin two lives?”
Alas. The two teams, who had not met each other since 1979, didn’t get the chance to play each other that year. Louisville lost to UCLA in the semifinals. Kentucky beat Syracuse in the semis, then lost to UCLA in the championship game.
After one more year with the Cardinals, I was moved to the Kentucky beat for the 1976-77 season. This meant driving back and forth from Louisville to Lexington, about a 70-mile trip, a couple of times or so a week (games and a handful of practices), but it wasn’t a bad drive.
The interstate ran only from Louisville to Frankfort at the time, so it meant completing the second half of the journey on U.S. 60.
The part from Versailles (which in Kentucky is pronounced Ver-sales) to Lexington is an especially beautiful drive with the road taking you past horse farms like Calumet Farm as you arrive in Lexington.
In my second year, when the interstate was completed, we sometimes would get off before going all the way to Lexington and take one of the back roads into the town. That would take us on the backside of the farms, just as pretty.
By the time the two teams met in the NCAA tournament in a regional final in 1983, I had left Kentucky and moved on to Jackson. But as sports editor, I managed to finagle the assignment to cover that regional. A very good Arkansas team almost upset Louisville in the semis, and Indiana gave Kentucky a good fight as well.
But both the Cardinals and Wildcats managed to win, and that set up a classic regional final that Louisville won in overtime. Louisville went on to lose to Houston in the Final Four the next week, but no matter. The game with Kentucky led to the establishment of the regular-season series that exists between the two teams today.
The Wildcats and Cardinals would meet again in the NCAA tourney in 1984 with Kentucky winning a regional semifinal game on its home court. (Yes, back then teams were permitted to play at home because the feeling at the time was if the NCAA didn’t allow it, no school, or not many, would apply to host a regional because of all the work involved with no advantage gained.)
But this is the first time the two teams have played in the NCAA tourney since then, and the first time they have met in the Final Four.
I’m thinking Kentucky is going to win, which doesn’t exactly put me in an exclusive group of prognosticators, but I wouldn’t be all that surprised if Louisville pulled it out.
Either way, it’s going to be an interesting and entertaining game to watch. I’m wondering how much camera time Louisville coach Rick Pitino and Kentucky coach John Calipari are going to get. I bet it’s a lot.
Oh, yeah. In the second game, Kansas takes on Ohio State.
I don’t like Ohio State. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta is probably a nice guy, but looks like a weasel, kind of like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski looks like a ferret. Good coaches, though.
Kansas coach Bill Self looks like someone I wouldn’t mind having a beer with, providing he’s buying. But then, the list of people I’ll have a beer with on their dime (dollars) is not an exclusive group either.