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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Thursday, June 13, 2024
Vince Huth

Column: Once again, unpredictability of Final Four reigns supreme

Most of the fun is over. We have just three games left in this year’s NCAA tournament, and then I can’t write another college hoops column for... well, until next week.

March wasn’t as mad as we might have hoped for. But regardless of how few truly exciting finishes we’ve had, the Final Four usually finds a way to tickle our fancies, even if one team appears to be a shoe-in to win it all, as many have pegged Louisville this season.

The Cardinals are the only pre-tournament favorite that made it to the final weekend. I’m sure you know someone who picked Michigan or Syracuse, but neither of those teams was an overwhelmingly popular choice a few weeks ago. I’m pretty sure you don’t know anyone who picked Wichita State to make it to Atlanta—not even the guy who seemingly chooses every upset “in one of his brackets.” That guy blows.

Once again, the Madness has managed to give us a group of semi-finalists we certainly didn’t expect.

Everyone has his or her own approach in selecting the Final Four. Some people use the same criteria every season while others differ their picks based on how the season has played out. (For example, picking Big Ten teams to make deep runs was a popular strategy this time around.)

The formula (or lack thereof) to correctly predict the regional champions is beyond me. As far as I’m concerned, there is no e=mc^2 to March Madness, despite the many hypotheses as to what makes a particular team Final Four worthy:

A slew of seniors; an upperclassmen core with tournament experience; a veteran point guard; elite coaching; a head coach who’s “been there before;” NBA-caliber players; teams that have had a six-game win streak; teams that can win at road or neutral locations; and teams that enter the tourney playing their better brand of hoops.

It turns out Final Four teams don’t necessarily need any of those characteristics. I’ve been trying to crack the code to correctly picking the semifinalists ever since I filled out my first bracket in 2000, and I think I’m finally onto something.

Final Four teams simply need three guys who can get the job done. It doesn’t need to be the same three players throughout the tournament. And they don’t all have to be scorers, defenders or any other specific type of player.

In order to win a regional, a squad needs three guys who come to play each night. Other players will fill into their particular role, whether it’s a scorer off the bench or a morale-boosting type of guy.

I’d love to dissect every Final Four team from the last 25 years to see if this theory holds true, but I think the few examples I’ll lay out should at least give some legitimacy to the three-guys theory.

Three years ago, Kentucky had as much pure talent as any college basketball roster in recent memory—five Wildcats were selected in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft, including three in the lottery. However, No. 1-seeded Kentucky lost to West Virginia in the Elite Eight (and just for comparison’s sake, WVU had two players selected in the second round of the draft).

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Do-it-all forward Da’Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones, the last of which developed into a poor man’s version of Butler and Ebanks, were the Mountaineers’ primary performers in the NCAA tournament. But it wasn’t just those three guys.

Wellington Smith, a bruiser down low, helped to hold Kentucky’s DeMarcus Cousins in check in the Elite 8. Joe Mazzulla, WVU’s primary ball handler, was intricate in the Mountaineers’ Sweet 16 win over a pesky Washington team.

The following season, Virginia Commonwealth was playing like ass before the tourney. The Rams, which entered the NCAA tournament with a 3-5 record in their previous eight games, almost didn’t even make the field.

You know the story: Eleventh-seeded VCU won five games in 12 days and reached the Final Four.

Bradford Burgess was VCU’s primary scorer, Jamie Skeen gave the team an inside presence and Joey Rodriguez facilitated the Rams’ up-tempo offense, averaging more than seven assists per game in the tournament. Beyond those three players, Brandon Rozzell exploded for 26 points to help VCU past Georgetown. Darius Theus provided quality minutes off the bench, especially during his eight-point, six-rebound display in a one-point overtime win over Florida State.

Off the top of my head, I’m not sure there’s been a better three-guy team than this year’s Michigan squad. The Wolverines lost their final two games before Selection Sunday, but they’ve had three guys come to play in each game of the tourney. Trey Burke and Mitch McGary have been big for Michigan throughout, and either Nik Stauskas, Glen Robinson III or Tim Hardaway Jr., has stepped up in a big way in at least one game during the Wolverines’ run.

I’m not sure the Final Four has a code to be cracked. It’s the most unpredictable postseason in sports—one-and-done for six-straight rounds. But if you remember this column next March, give the three-guy theory a chance. And then please share your winnings with me.

Will you try the three-guy theory next year? Let Vince know what you think by sending him an email at sports@dailycardinal.com.

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