Wide-open Final Four a reason for Big Ten teams to be kicking themselves
When Maryland blasted the doors off Miami at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut on Nov. 20, there was no reason to suspect either team was a Final Four contender.
The 88-70 win was the first signature victory of Kevin Willard’s Maryland tenure. If anything, all it asserted was that we’d likely be seeing both of these teams in March.
The Hurricanes were a known entity coming off of last year’s Elite Eight appearance. The Terrapins were no longer the 15-17 disappointment they proved to be in 2022. Perhaps both teams were capable of a run into the second weekend of this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Turns out Miami was capable of much more than that.
The Hurricanes cut down the nets in Kansas City after rallying from a 13-point second-half deficit against Texas, becoming the fourth team in this oddest of Final Fours.
It’s the first Final Four without any 1-seeds since 2011. It’s the first Final Four ever without a 1, 2 or 3 seed involved. And all-time, it’s the second-highest seed total in a Final Four. (Fittingly, that was also in Houston, with UConn beating Butler in an excruciating final in 2011.)
This is the second-highest total of seeds (23; 4+5+5+9), only behind the 26 in 2011 (3+4+8+11), to advance to a Final Four.
— David Worlock (@DavidWorlock) March 26, 2023
Another nugget — a McNugget, if you will — is that this is the first Final Four without a McDonald’s All-American since 1979.
A sign of the times: This is the first Final Four without a single former McDonald's All-American since the NCAA tournament began seeding teams in 1979. (Via @ESPNStatsInfo)
— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 26, 2023
UConn is the closest thing to a blueblood, with 4 national championships and 8 Final Four appearances. None of the other 3 teams have ever been here before.
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To find a year where the programs have less combined collective Final Four experience, you again have to go all the way back to 1979. Michigan State and DePaul were each making their 2nd Final Four appearances, and were joined by upstart newcomers Indiana State and Penn.
This is as wide-open as the Final Four has ever been. And Big Ten teams have to be kicking themselves over their failure to walk through that door.
Maryland beating Miami certainly didn’t feel like it would go down in the books as the Big Ten’s signature non-conference win of the season. Illinois’ 85-78 overtime win against Texas at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 6 seemed the most likely candidate.
It wasn’t tough to envision the teams meeting again at the same venue in March with considerably higher stakes.
The Fighting Illini handed the Longhorns their first loss of the season, rallying from a 10-point deficit with 8 minutes remaining. As it turns out, that collapse provided foreshadowing for Texas’ final loss of the season.
Illinois never came close to meeting the potential it showed against Texas, or a couple weeks prior when it beat fellow future 2-seed UCLA. The 9th-seeded Illini exited meekly in a First Round loss to Arkansas that the Razorbacks controlled throughout.
Perhaps personnel changes are part of where things went sideways for the Illini.
Freshman point guard Skyy Clark, expected to play a big role all year, left the team for personal reasons after 13 games. After trying to make things work with freshmen Sencire Harris and Jayden Epps, Brad Underwood shifted Terrence Shannon from his primary strength of shooting guard to handling the point.
Maybe an Illinois team as originally constructed lives up to what we saw at the start of the season. But Texas would look at that excuse and say, “You lost a player? How quaint.”
Chris Beard coached just 1 more game after losing to the Illini, soon to be arrested and then fired due to domestic abuse charges. The Longhorns still managed to make their way to the Elite Eight.
Illinois is far from the only Big Ten team with something to lament.
Obviously, Michigan State was a play away from beating Kansas State in a Sweet 16 classic. Penn State let a late lead slip away against Texas in the Second Round. An Elite Eight matchup against Miami could have gone either way given how hot the Nittany Lions can get from behind the arc.
But these scenarios have nothing on the level of regret being felt in West Lafayette right now.
Lack of Pack pact costs Purdue big-time
Obviously, no team should have more regrets than Purdue.
Watching a program like Florida Atlantic reach the Final Four has to be sickening for fans who haven’t seen the Boilermakers get there since 1980. The Owls weren’t even Division I until 1988. They’d only ever been to the Tournament on 1 other occasion. And worst of all, they’re coached by an IU guy.
Truly disheartening on every level.
Yet probably not even half as disheartening as seeing Miami in the Final Four. And not just because Miami’s basketball tradition is so weak that the school dropped the sport completely from 1971-84.
Last April, the Boilers were finalists in the recruiting derby for point guard Nijel Pack, who left Kansas State after Bruce Weber was fired. It made all the sense in the world for the graduate of Lawrence Central in Indianapolis to come to Purdue.
But this is a new world.
Billionaire Miami booster John Ruiz signed Pack to a Name, Image and Likeness deal that pays Pack $800,000 over 2 years. Pack would have been foolish to turn that down.
Purdue could have matched such a deal if it wanted to wade into those waters. Of course, giving that much money to a guy who wasn’t on the roster means someone would have needed to dig through the coffers to give even more money to the likes of Zach Edey and Mason Gillis.
So Purdue didn’t. Instead of finding a way to pay Pack, Purdue chose to get sad about it.
A month after Pack signed with Miami, outgoing Purdue president Mitch Daniels wrote a Washington Post opinion piece lamenting that “pay for play” is here to stay in college athletics.
It sure is. And had Purdue paid Pack, it would almost certainly be celebrating its first Final Four in 43 years.
Fairleigh Dickinson became just the 2nd 16-seed to ever beat a 1-seed because the Boilers couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn from 3-point range. Purdue was 5-for-26 behind the arc.
Pack made 7 treys on his own in Miami’s Sweet 16 win over top-seeded Houston.
The Pack-led Boilermakers would have been quite capable of navigating what became FAU’s path, and would be overwhelming favorites to win it all in Houston.
Instead, it’s an offseason of unfathomable sadness for the Boilermakers. And Daniels thought he was blue when players started making money.
From this point forward, hanging a banner will come with a price. Purdue is learning that lesson the hardest way possible.