Carson: Cinderellas still alive this year
Alex Carson | Monday, March 27, 2017
There was no “Cinderella” this year, right?
No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee was a good contender, but the Blue Raiders fell out of the tournament in the second round. Princeton, also a No. 12 seed, had a shot to become a tournament darling, but its final-seconds shot to beat Notre Dame was off-target.
Many had a budding suspicion that Wichita State — a squad criminally underseeded at No. 10 — would make a deep run, or perhaps Rhode Island, who caught fire to win the Atlantic 10 tournament and snag a No. 11 seed, could get the job done and make the second weekend.
Yet, when the Sweet 16 got underway Thursday, the closest things we had to true tournament darlings were No. 11 seed Xavier, who was making its sixth Sweet 16 appearance in the last 10 years, and No. 8 seed Wisconsin, who played for a national championship two seasons ago.
One could have easily been forgiven for thinking of that Sweet 16 field as boring, devoid of intrigue.
So it’s a pleasant surprise that we head to Glendale, Arizona, this week with a Final Four field filled with intrigue.
Now, if you wanted to be that guy — you know, the pessimist who looks at the negative side of everything — you’d note that the Final Four field consists of three schools from power conferences, plus a No. 1 seed who lost just once this year. And if you wanted to be that guy, you would, technically, be telling the truth.
But that just misses the story of this tournament.
When I was a kid, I got burned by Gonzaga nearly every year when picking my bracket. Each season, I fell in love with the Bulldogs, a scrappy team from the West Coast Conference that always looked good and had a super cool name. And each season, Gonzaga fell short at some stage — be it the second round, Sweet 16 or, occasionally, the Elite Eight.
Until this year.
This Gonzaga team is head coach Mark Few’s best team yet, and that we look at the Bulldogs as a non-Cinderella squad speaks to the job that’s been done in Spokane, Washington. From the program’s first Elite Eight — as a No. 10 seed in 1999 — to today, the Bulldogs have gone from that plucky underdog to a power in their own right, a program that’s outgrown the WCC but has nowhere to go.
There’s something satisfying about seeing that long-term build finally pay off.
Perhaps it’s fitting that, in the year where Northwestern finally makes the tournament, Oregon returns to the Final Four. For years, the Wildcats were the answer to a classic sports trivia question: Which school hosted the first NCAA tournament championship game, but has never played in the tournament?
The lesser-known spinoff to that trivia question is another one: Which school won the first NCAA tournament?
All year, I liked what the Ducks had; top-level guard play and top-level rim protection can lead a team a long way in the tournament, and Oregon had both. Then it lost Chris Boucher, that premier-level rim protector who Sports Illustrated put on its cover projecting the Ducks to the Final Four before the season.
So Jordan Bell just went out and recorded eight blocks in Saturday’s handling of Kansas, who’d looked better than anyone this tournament.
Of course, I’ve saved the true Cinderella for last: South Carolina.
The Gamecocks hadn’t been to an NCAA tournament in 13 years. They hadn’t won a tournament game in 44.
Now, they’ll play Saturday night in the Final Four.
We typically don’t think of power-conference schools as Cinderella stories, and in most cases, that’s for good reason. But this Gamecocks team is a bit of an anomaly — and not just because it plays in the SEC, which often doesn’t behave like a power conference in basketball, anyway.
No, the Gamecocks are a classic case of a team catching lightning in a bottle, led by one player — Sindarius Thornwell, who has 103 points in four games — who probably has no business being at a program of South Carolina’s level.
If that ain’t a perfect Cinderella story, I don’t know what is.
Three head coaches — Few, South Carolina’s Frank Martin and Oregon’s Dana Altman — are making their Final Four debuts. The trio of schools has just one appearance between them, and it took place in 1939.
And in fitting Cinderella fashion, each could have a chance to overcome one of college basketball’s most storied programs: North Carolina.
So, yes, Cinderella is still alive and running. Her fashion choices are a little more mainstream this year, though.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.