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You can pick your own moment, but here's one: With less than eight minutes remaining in the East Regional final last Saturday night in Syracuse, Kentucky's flashy freshmen-soon-to-be millionaires were hanging on desperately against Big East tournament champion West Virginia, a punishing, willful team that grinds opponents into a fine powder. When the day started the Wildcats were the clear favorite to win the NCAA tournament among the remaining eight teams, but here they were, trailing by 10 points and very much on the ropes against an older, more urgent opponent. At stake was some semblance of traditional order in the sport.
John Wall, the best of coach John Calipari's presumptive one and dones, took a halting, nervous three-point shot, as if someone with less skill and confidence had momentarily inhabited his body. The shot was blocked inches off Wall's fingertips by West Virginia junior John Flowers. While Kentucky would furiously rally to within four points in the final seconds, it was the rejection of the Wall shot that rang with clarity. Not only was Kentucky finished, but the NCAA tournament was fundamentally changed as well.
After all, a season spent searching for dominance in college basketball had produced only uncertainty. Then the tournament that customarily is so reliable in separating the genuine from the merely hopeful instead delivered a delightful uncertainty. Kansas, the overall No. 1 seed, was beaten by Northern Iowa in the second round. Syracuse, another No. 1 seed, fell to Butler in the Sweet 16 last Thursday night. Patterns established on a wild opening weekend (when four teams seeded ninth or higher won two games each) were holding. There were no super powers in the house.
Four teams representing a new age in college basketball arrive in Indianapolis this week to decide the national championship at Lucas Oil Stadium. Some of their names are familiar to the Final Four: Duke and Michigan State. Another is an integral part of college basketball history: West Virginia. The fourth seems stunning at a glance, but actually is not: Butler, a team of real-life Hoosiers that will be playing six miles from its campus.
Each is seeking to win in an era defined by the NBA's minimum-age limit, whereby the very best players will participate only briefly before leaving. Entire generations of not-quite-transcendent athletes will wage unpredictable, evenly matched battles for championships. "I think different teams have a chance to win now," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, before his team beat Baylor on Sunday in Houston. "Unless you get that super team that has guys sticking together who are pro-caliber.... It will be like this from now on, which I don't think is bad. It's pretty darn interesting. But it's tougher to maintain a high level."
Often the Final Four confirms greatness. The UCLA Bruins of the 1960s and '70s. Duke in the early '90s. Florida in 2006 and '07. And numerous others who won just a single title. This year the Final Four is trying to find greatness.
Perhaps it is Duke, which comes to the city where, in 1991, Krzyzewski won the first of his three NCAA titles (after an epic semifinal upset of unbeaten UNLV). The Blue Devils thrive on unglamorous verities, and even Krzyzewski has said repeatedly that the team is good, not great. "Everybody on that team understands his role," says Greg Paulus, who played point guard at Duke for four years before finishing his college athletic career last fall as a quarterback on the Syracuse football team. "They play defense and rebound, and that's usually going to give you a chance down the stretch."
It is Duke's first trip back to the Final Four since 2004, and it's with a team that had to be reconstructed last summer after freshman guard Elliot Williams transferred to Memphis for family reasons and junior guard Gerald Henderson Jr. entered the NBA draft (and was selected at No. 12 by the Charlotte Bobcats). "Those were two dynamic wing athletes in our program," says assistant coach Chris Collins. "When they left we had to evolve."
They have transformed themselves into a bruising defensive team built on the foundation of four rotating inside players: 7'1" senior Brian Zoubek, 6'8" senior Lance Thomas and the 6'10" Plumlee brothers, Miles (a sophomore) and Mason (a freshman), while 6'8" junior Kyle Singler was moved mostly to the perimeter. "The last couple of years," says Collins, "if it became a grind-it-out physical game, we got manhandled." The opposite is true now, best exemplified by Zoubek's crushing, borderline-illegal pick on burly Purdue guard Chris Kramer in Duke's Sweet 16 victory.
But it was in Sunday's win over Baylor that the Blue Devils fully meshed their inside and outside games. Guards Nolan Smith (29 points) and John Scheyer (20) outplayed the dangerous Bears backcourt of LaceDarius Dunn (22 points on 8-for-18 shooting) and Tweety Carter (12 points and four turnovers).