Few Surprises In NCAA Men And Women's Final Four

Mar 30, 2012
Originally published on March 30, 2012 4:03 pm
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It's almost time for the Final Four. The semifinals of college basketball's men's and women's tournaments tip off this weekend. The men are in New Orleans and the women in Denver. And sportswriter Stefan Fatsis is here in Washington to talk about them. Hey there, Stefan.


CORNISH: So between the men and the women, there are eight teams left, and five of them are number one seeds in the tournament. So all that talk of underdogs and Cinderellas, it just seems like it didn't work out.

FATSIS: No. It didn't. In the women's game, it's not surprising. It's still dominated by a handful of schools. The Final Four, Baylor is playing Stanford; Connecticut plays Notre Dame on Sunday. All of those teams were top seeds coming into the tournament. Their round of eight games weren't close. The margins of victory were 12, 15, 19 and 31 points.

On the men's side, the Final Four games are Saturday. Kentucky-Louisville, Ohio State-Kansas. Kentucky was a number one seed. Ohio State and Kansas number two seeds. As a number four seed, Louisville is the outlier of the bunch, but barely so. This is the team that's coached by Rick Pitino and is a familiar figure in Final Fours.

CORNISH: At the same time, the appearance of big name teams on the men's side seems to be coming as a surprise to people.

FATSIS: Yeah. Well, that's because we've become conditioned in these recent tournaments to smaller schools making it to the Final Four. You had Butler in 2010 and 2011, Virginia Commonwealth last year and, as fans, we love these underdog stories, especially in college sports in which the power conferences and these power institutions wield such a big financial and recruiting advantage. And that's why this year's men's tournament has felt kind of blah. You know, there've been fewer upsets. Only one buzzer beater to end a game and a Final Four that's dominated by traditional powers.

CORNISH: I know what you mean. It's so much more fun to watch it when it seems like it's a nail-biter. I mean, do you have any theories on why this tournament has been less exciting?

FATSIS: It's actually, I think, a reversion to form. The big schools, as I said, have this recruiting advantage and high school basketball players are ranked by these recruiting services with a star system. Five is the most you can get.

ESPN's current list of recruits had just 18 players with five stars, so there's not that many every year. This year's Final Four is loaded with five star players, three in Ohio State's starting lineup, one each for Kansas and Louisville, plus a bunch more four and three star starters.

Kentucky, though, five former five star players in the starting lineup, one more coming off the bench, which is why every computer simulation and talking head thinks it's all but done that Kentucky will be cutting down the nets on Monday night.

CORNISH: And, of course, Kentucky is coached by John Calipari. He's assembled a steady stream of NBA prospects.

FATSIS: Yeah. It's the Calipari way. Reload the roster every year with NBA prospects and don't think those kids don't know that they can go to Kentucky and get to the league. This year, seven Kentucky players could be taken in the NBA draft. Three of them are freshmen. Two of them could go one, two in the NBA draft. Kentucky has won every tournament game so far by double-digit margins. They've looked so good that a big media hypothetical this week has been whether the Wildcats could beat the Washington Wizards, who are having a bad year in the NBA.

CORNISH: And, speaking of that, you're talking about Kentucky with freshmen leaving early and, of course, there's this NBA rule that requires players to be at least 19 years old in order to be drafted by the NBA and that's prompted everyone to talk about this idea of one and done.

FATSIS: Yeah. One and done. It's a bad thing for college sports, a lot of people feel, because the athletes don't really become students at all. The NCAA's president, Mark Emmert, pinned the onus on the NBA this week. He said two or three years would be better for colleges.

David Stern, the NBA commissioner, replied that the NCAA could find ways to force its athletes to stay longer and then he said, hey, we could do it the old way where high school basketball players were allowed to go directly to the NBA. His point, the NCAA should be thankful for a system from which it's going to profit very, very handsomely in the next few days.

CORNISH: Well, Stefan, thanks for breaking it down for us.

FATSIS: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis. He joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on Slate magazine's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.