If West Virginia could have picked the Final Four it wanted to play in as its first in more than half a century, this 2010 Final Four probably would be it for it is a Final Four in search of an identity and the Mountaineers seem as qualified as anyone else to put their stamp on it.
You think Final Four, you think star power in college basketball.
You think Magic and Larry Bird, Michael or Patrick Ewing. Think Bill Walton and Christian Laettner and the Fab Five and the Doctors of Dunk.
It is the showcase of college basketball, but as you look around today you see not Kansas but Butler and not North Carolina but West Virginia. Yes, Duke is a glamor team but the Blue Devils are here without a Johnny Dawkins or Laettner or Shane Battier or J.J. Reddick or Jason Williams.
Michigan State is on hand, too, but it as a banged up Michigan State team, one relying more on magic than Magic.
The truth is that the Mountaineers’ Da’Sean Butler, who Monday was named to second team Associated Press’ All-America, is as close to a superstar as there is in this field, which is far more blue collar than blue blood.
If there is a trend at all it is toward defense, which is WVU’s specialty and which the Mountaineers’ semifinal opponent on at 8:47 p.m. Saturday, Duke, has had to adopt as its strength.
The Mountaineers Bob Huggins has admitted that his team has had to play defense and rebound because it just hasn’t shot very well all year.
Mike Krzyzewski, the veteran Duke coach, laughs when he hears that because he’s living the same nightmare.
“We’re two teams who have gotten this far without shooting it well,” he said. “We understand that to win we have to play every possession on defense and rebound. While we are different than West Virginia, the motivation is the same.”
What is interesting about this phenomena of defensive teams surviving is that when you recruit kids to play for you, it’s hard to tell get them by selling defense. Kids are … well, they’re kids and they want to run and shoot and score.
In their mind’s eye they are all LeBron James and not Joe Mazzulla.
But the college game is changing and changing rapidly. More talent is coming into the game than ever before but the professionals are stealing it away quickly. The result is a rise in defense and more parity in the game, mid-majors getting more and more competitive, rising almost to the point that the title mid-major no longer fits.
Butler, with a 24-game winning streak, certainly belongs here as did Gonzaga and George Mason in previous years.
“First of all, there are better players out there,” Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said. “That has created more parity. Then, they are playing against higher-echelon teams in these pre-season tournaments. Major schools won’t go to their place, so they play in tournaments or come to your home court to play. And then the big schools are losing players to the NBA while these schools are keeping their players and that makes a big difference.”
“There’s not the difference there was a decade ago between the top historic program and the emerging programs,” Krzyzewski said. “There’s a lot of good basketball teams out there now. You can get beat by a lot of people. I guess that’s what this tournament is showing.”
A lot of good players but not as many great players, it would seem.
The great players get one shot at going to the Final Four before jumping to the NBA, and that’s only because they have to. Most would rather just follow LeBron James right to the NBA, where they carry bank books instead of text books.
So, without the great offensive stars, these teams have had to lean more on team play, more on defense and rebounding.
That is not to say that there aren’t top-line players in the Final Four, but the fact is that in this Final Four with Huggins, Krzyzewski and Izzo, it is the coaches who are the superstars, household names. And if you don’t know who Stephen Drew is, the Butler coach, you will.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.