With the 2011 Final Four featuring two mid-majors, we take a look at the Final Four in a Bizarro World in which college players stay all four years…
The teams have descended upon Houston for the 2011 Final Four and everyone is still buzzing about Kansas State’s thrilling 95-92 double-overtime victory over Memphis in Sunday’s final Elite Eight game that completed the Final Four bracket: No. 2 seed K-State and No. 1 seeds Kentucky, Ohio State and Oklahoma.
It should be a Final Four for the ages featuring plenty of future NBA lottery picks and no story more remarkable than K-State’s run to Houston.
It was just a little over a year ago when star player Michael Beasley showed up to practice intoxicated and was choked by then-head coach Frank Martin. Martin was fired the following day and Beasley’s old AAU coach Dalonte Hill took the reigns of the program with Beasley seeking treatment for his substance abuse problem and the Wildcats doomed to an early exit from the Big Dance.
But this year Beasley has reverted back to his freshman and sophomore year form, averring 34.3 PPG and 15.2 RPG while senior guards Jacob Pullen and Bill Walker have provided timely shooting like Pullen’s 3-pointer at the buzzer to defeat Memphis despite Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans combining for 76 of Memphis’ points.
“I’m just so glad coach let me return to the program,” Beasley said. “I don’t even want to know what would have happened if basketball players left early for the pros like in football. I’d probably have just ended up regretting it or something and already gotten my butt traded.”
And the trip to Houston has to be especially sweet for Hill after critics claimed he got his assistant job and the eventual head coaching gig just because he was once Beasley’s AAU coach.
“Maybe I know a thing or two about coaching after all,” Hill deadpanned.
K-State will face off in the first semifinal against Big 12 foe Oklahoma, who has its own star trio of Willie Warren, Tommy Mason-Griffin and Blake Griffin (no relation).
The presumed national player of the year, Griffin has averaged 41.5 PPG in the tournament and added to his highlight reel of SportsCenter dunks, including the senior jumping completely over UNC-Asheville’s 6-foot-10 big man D.J. Cunningham in the second round in a 105-49 shellacking of the Bulldogs.
And it was Griffin again who led the Sooners past Wake Forest in the Elite Eight despite a team starring Jeff Teague, James Johnson and Al-Farouq Aminu and led by potential national Coach of the Year Dino Gaudio.
Griffin will be coached by Jeff Capel, who is still trying to take it easy after going to the hospital earlier this season when he walked into practice and witnessed Griffin dunking over a car after a friendly wager between teammates.
“I told him to save that stuff for the NBA Slam Dunk contest,” Capel joked. “If he does that again while I’m here, he’ll kill me.”
Capel is now the hottest name in college coaching and there’s rampant speculation that he will replace Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski at his alma mater when Coach K retires. Reports indicate the Krzyzewski is contemplating calling it quits among criticism that the game has passed him by after failing to reach the Final Four for the seventh consecutive year.
On the other side of the bracket, Kentucky has looked completely unbeatable. Having suffered just one loss all season, UK has won its tournament games by an average margin of 25.3 PPG led by the likes of super sophomores John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. And who knows how unstoppable the team would have been if Turkish big man Enes Kanter had been ruled eligible by the NCAA earlier this year?
Syracuse doesn’t even want to know after losing by eight despite future NBA players in Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson and problem child Donte Greene starring for them.
“I keep telling my kids we have a chance to go down as the greatest team in college basketball history alongside the ’96 UK team if we win it all,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “But until then, we’ll just be a talented group that hasn’t won anything like the Fab Five.”
And Kentucky will have to go through mighty Ohio State if they are going to do it, the new dynasty of college basketball since LeBron James and the Buckeyes’ three-peat from 2004-07. The Buckeyes are looking for redemption after the “Thad Five” fell just short of another title last year due to the season-ending injury to Greg Oden and Kevin Durant’s legendary 53-point performance in last year’s title game for a 91-87 win over the Buckeyes.
This year’s group is led by senior Evan Turner, a role player on last year’s team that has exploded into a superstar and the Big Ten Player of the Year. Down low the Buckeyes have their twin towers of B.J. Mullens and Kosta Koufos, plus freshman Jared Sullinger coming off the bench.
“Everyone knows our game with Kentucky is going to come down to the battle in the trenches between (Patrick) Patterson, Cousins and (Daniel) Orton vs. our big three of Mullens, Koufos and Sully,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “If we can handle a kid averaging 20 points and 20 rebounds a night in Kevin Love, I think we’ll be OK against Kentucky.”
“Handle” might be an overstatement. Love still had 30 points and 18 boards in the narrow loss to OSU when Jrue Holiday’s last-second 3-pointer went off the rim that would have sent the game to overtime.
But now the field is set and, as always at the Final Four, all four coaches got emotional talking about their senior leaders and what they’ve meant to their programs.
“We’ve got a kid in Josh Harrellson that transferred here from a junior college and hasn’t plenty 20 minutes all season but he brings it hard every day and could probably start at almost any other school in America,” Calipari said.
Capel was even more dramatic.
“I tell Willie and Blake every day how much they’ve meant to me and how they’ve changed Oklahoma basketball forever,” Capel said. “Who knows where I’d be without those kids?”