GLENDALE, Ariz. — One can only imagine the grimaces inside the walls of 51 West 52nd Street in Manhattan last weekend as CBS executives came to terms with the reality of this Final Four.
A tremendous television draw, it is not.
On one side, you have Gonzaga (small, private school fan base located on the West Coast) against South Carolina (football school from a state without a major media market making its first Final Four appearance). On the other you have North Carolina (Fist pump!) against Oregon (Has anyone, at any point in basketball history, purposely turned on an Oregon basketball game besides Oregon fans?).
In an alternate version of this NCAA tournament, it would have been easy to embrace the glitz of a Final Four here instead matching Duke and Arizona on one side of the semifinals and, say, Kentucky vs. Kansas on the other. Imagine the TV ratings!
But because neither the NCAA nor CBS gets to choose who actually wins the games, we have to make due trading blueblood for fresh blood.
And guess what?
There’s something just as cool about that, too.
What this avant-garde Final Four lacks in tradition, it makes up for in the pure giddiness of three schools and fan bases making this trip for the first time. And maybe that can ultimately pay dividends for a sport that has been remarkably exclusive given the open nature of the tournament.
Consider this: Between 1970 and 2016, there were 188 spots available in the Final Four. A full 64% of them — 120 total — went to 16 schools. And though there have been interlopers and great long-shot stories such as George Mason or Virginia Commonwealth, there’s a freshness to the group of schools that made it this year the sport needs.
For Gonzaga, of course, this has been a long time coming. Mark Few probably has had three teams good enough to make it here before this year but, for whatever reason, just didn’t have things fall his way. When the Zags finally did it Saturday night, they returned home on a charter to find maybe a couple thousand fans waiting for them at “The Kennel,” just for the chance to thank the players in person for finally breaking through.
“It was electric,” guard Jordan Mathews said.
USA TODAY Sports' Nicole Auerbach says you're sorely mistaken if you think this won't be an entertaining Final Four. USA TODAY Sports
Even for a grizzled tournament coach such as Few, you can sense how much the experience of being here means to him, not just because of the opportunity to play for a championship but the connection he has to former players all around the globe who still are emotionally invested in Gonzaga’s success.
“I mean, it's crazy. It's crazy, and it's really cool,” Few said of the friends and extended Gonzaga family members who are invading Phoenix this week. “It's more about just the joy you feel when you see those former players, how proud they are of the school they went to, the program they played for. Obviously seeing how happy my guys are and just the looks on their faces for all the — I had no idea some of the stuff goes on for these Final Four teams. I mean, the way they take care of you here is just mind boggling. And they truly make it a lifetime experience.”
Obviously, the Final Four will have a different impact at Oregon, a school whose football team has played for the national title twice in the last seven seasons. One Final Four run won’t change the national perception of Oregon — flashy uniforms and up-tempo offense are still the first things that come to mind with the Ducks — but can bring a different energy to a school that still struggles to sell out its 12,000-seat arena. Plus, pedigree aside, the Ducks are just plain fun to watch.
“That’s one of the great things about the NCAA basketball tournament,” Oregon athletics director Rob Mullens said. “It’s set up for that and we’ve got an experienced group that last year made the Elite Eight and has now broken through that ceiling. It's great for our fans to experience. It’s such a unique event and so outstanding for our folks.”
Though it’s still wild to think of South Carolina in a Final Four — the Gamecocks hadn’t even made the tournament since 2004 — it’s been fascinating to watch coach Frank Martin become a star over the course of three weeks.
In the same way college football fans have embraced Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Martin is endearing because of his unfailing earnestness. Though sometimes his style has drawn attention for the wrong reasons — including a one-game suspension in 2014 for going too far in dressing down one of his players — he undoubtedly has moderated his behavior on the sidelines. And with this run, fans can now see why players have been so loyal to him over the years: Behind the sometimes harsh language is genuine love.
“Tough love — I don't know what that is,” Martin said. “People use that term all the time. Because if you're not being honest with your players and you're not giving them passion, then there is no love. That's phoniness. And, I don't know, it's my experience in 32, 33 years coaching guys like the ones to my left that if you're phony with them, they got no time for anything I say regardless of how nice I am.
“If you're honest with them, they give you their hearts because then they realize you're trying to help them as people. When you're trying to help people as people, then you're being genuine. You're not being phony about a scoreboard. And that's what I've tried to do my whole life.”
There’s no guarantee that any of those story lines will inspire millions of casual fans to turn on their television sets Saturday, but for those who follow the sport, there’s more than enough juice to make up for Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, Villanova and Duke not being here.
This Final Four might not be great for ratings. But we’ll almost certainly remember it for being unique.