In honor of Prince, and Morris Day and The Time, Minneapolis on Saturday will bring you the Funky Final Four.
The result of one of the greatest regional finals weekends in men’s NCAA tournament history is an odd assortment of teams that could walk down Nicollet Mall without being asked for an autograph.
CBS and the Minneapolis host committee may have wished for blue-clad blue bloods like Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina. The rest of us aren’t settling when we get to watch newer faces and bluer collars.
Tom Izzo is royalty among the serfs, a coach who has won one national title and admits he needs a second to achieve a sort of immortality. Michigan State has won two national titles and Magic Johnson carries their banner; the other three entrants have won a total of zero national championships and their most famous alums are Ralph Sampson and Charles Barkley, both known for relative greatness and championship frustration.
Michigan State is taking part in its 10th Final Four. Virginia, Auburn and Texas Tech had combined for two Final Four appearances, both belonging to Virginia. The Spartans keep a map to the Final Four in their glove compartment; the other teams required a constantly recalculating GPS.
“It’s an amazing thing to be a part of,’’ said Michigan State forward Kenny Goins, the rare player here with Final Four experience. “I tell the younger guys that it’s not like anything you can imagine. You look around, and it’s hard to explain to them what this is like. Once you get here, it surpasses your dreams.’’
Texas Tech forward Norense Odiase said, “The size of the arena, the coverage we get, the feel of the city — it’s surreal, really.’’
This may be the greatest long weekend in American sport. If you can get past the hypocrisy and greed of the NCAA and its member schools, you’ll find the nougaty-sweet center of the Final Four: the kids. Their hopes, dreams, skills and joy to be walking into a place as big as U.S. Bank Stadium to do what they’d be doing on a playground someplace if they weren’t on this elevated hardwood floor.
During two long days of interviews at the West Bank, common themes emerged. Few of these players are the result of privilege. Few of the coaches, either. They sneaked into gyms to take extra shots, wore out playground rims, even tore cardboard to shreds.
Izzo remembers his mother worrying about him lacking a real job at the age of 26. He kept hounding legendary Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote for a job. “I think it’s worked out pretty well,’’ he said. “I think everyone benefited, including my mom.’’
Texas Tech coach Chris Beard coached at virtually every level, and tore cardboard boxes behind a grocery store to make cash. “They didn’t care what time you did it, as long as the cardboard got shredded,’’ he said.
Beard used to attend the Final Four as a fan and job seeker. He’d sleep on the floor of any hotel room he could find. “I don’t really like sharing a towel with other men,’’ he said. “So we’d bring our own towels to the Final Four.’’
What has been charming about this week is the glee of the participants. There is no sense of entitlement. The only No. 1 seed, Virginia, is one season removed from being upset in the first round as a No. 1 seed.
Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett made two of his key players join him at the podium after the game, telling them they would learn from that hard moment.
“I told them we’re going to go up there and it’s going to be one of the hardest things you ever have to do,’’ Bennett said. “But it’s going to mark your life, and this is going to be something we’re going to try to overcome.’’
If this Final Four hired a mascot, it would be a gym rat. You get the sense that the losers of Saturday’s doubleheader would like to stick around and get some shots in on Sunday.
“It’s a long journey and I will never, as long as I’m coaching, ever not think of getting to a Final Four and winning a national championship,” Izzo said. “Once you do it once, it’s so good you want to come back.’’