Whatever heights Zion Williamson may reach in his career, and we all have seen how he can soar, he never will be able to say he was in a Final Four. And the past two days have shown how much everyone in college basketball prizes the chance to say that.
Everyone in the Elite Eight played his heart out. The winners, including the Michigan State Spartans after they literally ran out the clock against Duke here Sunday, reacted as if they had just earned a championship. In a way, they had.
The Final Four is not just an avenue, it is a destination in itself. It is sort of a title before the title, like a pennant in baseball. As a celebration/convention, Final Four weekend (Friday through Monday) is like the Super Bowl. Everyone who makes it realizes that they have two more games to win, but they also realize that they already have accomplished something. It looks as if teams treat it the way students do when they get into med school.
Williamson is headed to the highest level of basketball education, likely bound to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. He never will have been to the Final Four, though. He and his fellow one-and-done Duke freshmen had enough to squeak past Central Florida and Virginia Tech, but they did not have the wiles to beat Michigan State junior guard Cassius Winston and his teammates.
“A lot is obviously going through my mind right now. I’m very upset, obviously, because we wanted to go to the Final Four,” Williamson said after the Blue Devils lost, 68-67. “Congrats to Michigan State. They deserve it. They played a hell of a game.
“You just look around the locker room and see your teammates, your brothers. And you just think this group probably never will play together again.”
That’s just about a sure thing. Mike Krzyzewski put his team together knowing that most of his starters were interested in leaving for the pros after one season. Led by Williamson, with perhaps once-in-a-generation skills, along with RJ Barrett and Tre Jones, the Blue Devils realized they had one shot at a Final Four, and they swung and missed.
Maybe inexperience was their downfall. Maybe savvy allowed Winston to overcome Duke’s extraordinary talent and reputation. Perhaps it was the sum of many college games that helped graduate student Kenny Goins make the deciding three-pointer with 34 seconds left before Barrett clanked a three-point attempt with 12 seconds left and missed a free throw in a potential tying situation with five seconds left. Maybe not. But one-and-done squads generally do not populate Final Fours.
“Especially in the first half, we were not ourselves,” Krzyzewski said. “We wanted it too much. I spent the first half not X’ing and O’ing but just saying, ‘Settle down.’ ”
The Final Four has developed its own statistics and records, with Krzyzewski holding a prominent place. He remains tied with John Wooden for having been there the most times, 12. Wooden, though, never kept track of that mark because in his day, the Final Four never was “a thing.” Back then, it was known simply as the semifinals.
Sportswriter Ed Chay of the Cleveland Plain Dealer is credited with having coined the phrase in 1974. Multiple published reports over the years, including the 1997 obituary for Chay in his own paper, cite his story for the 1975 Official Collegiate Basketball Guide in which he mentioned that Marquette was one of the “final four” teams in 1974. The term gained traction and the NCAA began officially using it, complete with capital letters, in 1978. The tournament (est. 1939) has been capitalizing on the concept ever since. Teams that participate are part of NCAA lore forever.
This year offers an eclectic mix, with first-timers Auburn and Texas Tech joining Virginia and Michigan State. They all will have a memory for a lifetime.
Duke’s kids never will know what they missed.
Final Four appearances for the last four teams standing:
Michigan State 10
Texas Tech 1