Duke had fallen behind by 22 points to Maryland. Mike Krzyzewski hadn’t won a national title since the last time he coached in Minneapolis, nine years earlier, and was facing an early and perhaps embarrassing Final four exit with a team seemingly built for greatness.
It was Saturday, March 31, 2001, and the Metrodome was filled with noise. Not the kind of can’t-hear-yourself-scream jet engines of Twins World Series and Vikings-Packers games, but the joyful cacophony of college basketball. Duke fans were screaming, Duke haters were screaming louder, and pep bands dueled for aural supremacy.
Duke’s reserves were screaming, too, right into the faces of Shane Battier and Jay Williams as they sat on the bench and Krzyzewski huddled with his assistants. Then Krzyzewski turned, returned to the huddle and inadvertently looked me right in the eye, flinching as if I had interrupted an intimate ritual, a father praying with children.
It was a strange moment, and one of my favorite memories as a Minnesota-based sportswriter — sitting within a few feet of this particular kind of genius, as Duke rallied to win the game, then won the national title and put Krzyzewski back on track to being considered one of the greatest coaches ever.
Over the next few days, a curtained version of U.S. Bank Stadium will play host to the 2019 Final Four. What visitors may not know or remember is that the decrepit Metrodome, one of the world’s least likely venues for premium hoops events, provided the stage for three remarkable tournaments that brought a procession of Who’s Who and Who-Would-Become basketball names to the stadium site that once flanked the original Hubert’s.
Here is a reminder of what each tournament brought to our city:
Minnesota felt like the center of the sports world, hosting the U.S. Open, Stanley Cup Final, a Super Bowl, the World Series and the Final Four.
Krzyzewski had been coaching at Duke for more than a decade, and had broken through with a championship the previous year, but Duke still felt like the young, brash wunderkind of college basketball, featuring chest-stomping Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley, the punky point guard.
Krzyzewski had played for Bobby Knight at Army. With Indiana and the Blue Devils both here at the Final Four, a veteran member of the Twin Cities media hounded both coaches all week. Krzyzewski wasn’t always in the mood for this, and he at least once showed off a quick first step to disappear around a curtain beyond which reporters could not pass.
For Minnesotans attending their first Final Four, what proved memorable was the feeling of an all-day basketball jamboree Saturday, when you could see Grant Hill leaping, Bobby and Pat Knight in Indiana red, and Cincinnati’s Bob Huggins coaching Nick Van Exel.
Michigan’s Fab Five freshmen — Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson — didn’t all start for the Wolverines until Feb. 9, 1992, but they made it to the Final Four. The greatest recruiting class in college basketball history to that point wore black shoes and socks and became a cultural and merchandising phenomenon.
Duke, having survived Kentucky on Laettner’s miracle shot, was too good for Michigan in the final, winning 71-51.
Lute Olson was born in Mayville, N.D., and rose to prominence coaching Iowa. He had coached Arizona since 1983. His wife of 48 years died on Jan. 1, 2001. This would be Lute’s fourth and final Final Four with Arizona, which featured Gilbert Arenas, Richard Jefferson and Luke Walton.
Maryland had never qualified for a Final Four before. As Duke surged past the Terrapins and coach Gary Williams screamed at the officials about their perceived bias toward the Blue Devils, you would not have guessed that Williams would win the national title the following year.
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo was bringing the Spartans to a third straight Final Four, having won the national title the previous season.
Some Final Fours feature oddities and underdogs. Not this one. This was basketball royalty, the best collection of college basketball talent and brainpower ever assembled in Minnesota. Duke survived Maryland and pulled away from Arizona to reboot Krzyzewski’s legend.
Kevin McHale folded himself into one of the Metrodome’s legendarily uncomfortable seats to watch the Midwest Regional and liked what he saw so much he tried to draft just about every player who took the court.
The Timberwolves’ general manager drafted Craig Smith from Boston College, Randy Foye from Villanova and Corey Brewer from Florida. Had McHale been lucky enough to land Kyle Lowry, Al Horford and Joakim Noah from that regional, he might still have the job.
Florida, Villanova, Georgetown and Boston College made it to the regional. Billy Donovan’s Gators were about to win the first of two consecutive national titles, Villanova’s Jay Wright was building the program that would win two titles, and Boston College and Georgetown gave the mini-tourney the feeling of a East Coast invitational.
What you remember was Jay Wright’s charisma (and suits), Brewer’s frenetic, clutch playmaking, and the confidence of Florida’s Joakim Noah, who made a national title sound like an inevitability.
In each of these tourneys, the oddity of the Metrodome as a basketball venue didn’t matter once the games began. After three games at U.S. Bank Stadium, we may remember a Jarrett Culver jumper or an Izzo celebration, or a first title for Virginia or Texas Tech.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. Twitter: @SouhanStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org