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Final Four Notebook: Robertson a Williamson admirer

Duke Blue Devils forward Zion Williamson (1) flexes after a play during the second half against the North Dakota State Bison in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Colonial Life Arena. Jeff Blake / USA TODAY Sports1 / 2
Virginia Cavaliers guard Ty Jerome (11) celebrates after beating the Auburn Tigers Saturday, April 6, in the semifinals of the 2019 men's Final Four at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports2 / 2

MINNEAPOLIS -- Perhaps the most-expected development of Final Four weekend in Minneapolis was NBA-bound Duke freshman Zion Williamson picking up the national player of the year awards handed out by both the Associated Press and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.

The USBWA award is named for University of Cincinnati and NBA star Oscar Robertson, who was part of the trophy ceremony and admitted being an admirer of Williamson’s on-court work.

“When I watched Zion, I watched his footwork and his intelligence when he went to the basket because everyone was after him,” said Robertson, now 80. “They were going to double-team him and triple-team him and do all these things to try to keep him from around the basket. He’s so gifted and he’s just so quick and so high, it’s difficult for any one person to guard him.”

On hand at U.S. Bank Stadium to accept the trophies on Friday, Williamson admitted he’d have much preferred to be prepping for a game -- a dream that died when the Blue Devils were upset by Michigan State in the East Regional finale last weekend -- and he wouldn’t pick a favorite among the Final Four.

“I’m not going to select any team because, obviously, I want it to be us,” said Williamson, who played high school basketball in South Carolina and has not yet officially declared his intention to leave college.

“I am a competitor,” he added. “I wish I was here under different circumstances, but I mean, you win some, you lose some and you’ve just got to move on.”

At 6-7 and 285 pounds, Williamson is widely expected to move on to the NBA as the league’s top overall pick in June.

Recover, then survive and advance

A year ago, Virginia made history when the Cavaliers became the first no. 1 seed to fall to a 16 seed in the NCAA tournament, when they were upset by Maryland-Baltimore County. On Monday, the Cavs can make history in another way, as they'll become the first Virginia team with a national hoops title if they win.

After Saturday's miracle win over Auburn, one Cavalier admitted that the heartbreak an notoriety of last season has made the success of this season more fun.

"I feel like I get asked this question every single round, every round we advance, and every round I say the same thing almost, and it feels a little bit sweeter, a little bit sweeter," said Virginia guard Tyrone Jerome. "But to think this time last year we were starting our spring workouts, and to still be playing at this point in the season with, after tonight, one other team in the whole country on the stage that you dreamed about since you were a little kid, it's an unreal feeling. We're going to do everything we can to finish the job."

Still, reminders of the notorious loss in the opening round last season aren't hard to spot, even in Minneapolis. During the opening game with Auburn on Saturday, a fan walked alongside the Virginia student section wearing a black UMBC sweatshirt, and drawing some boos from the Cavalier faithful.

Four schools, one country

One of the better ideas the NCAA has had in a long time came before tipoff of Saturday’s first game. The Star Spangled Banner was sung and performed by a quartet of student-athletes, one representing each of the four schools in the Final Four.

Volleyball players Milla Ciprian from Virginia and Morgan Kull from Auburn joined men’s soccer player Zach Kovan from Michigan State in vocalizing, while Dorian Williams Jr., a hurdler from Texas Tech. accompanied them on acoustic guitar. With thousands of fans from each school making myriad noise inside U.S. Bank Stadium, it was a rare moment of unity, and relative quiet.

Dim way to spend $5.2m

The defining feature of U.S. Bank Stadium since it opened in 2016, has been the huge amount of natural light that filters in through windows on both ends of the facility, and on half of the fixed roof. The NCAA, insisting that both of Saturday’s games be played with consistent lighting, required that the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which operates the stadium, cover the windows for the Final Four.

One of the MSFA’s largest expenditures for the event was $5.2 million for the window coverings, which worked perfectly. Both of Saturday’s games were played with similar artificial lighting. But by covering all of the windows -- most notably those on the west side of the stadium that provide a view of the Minneapolis skyline, the venue took on a decidedly dingy air inside, with gray curtains were sunlight is usually featured.

Minneapolis will surely bid on this event in the future, and the NCAA would be foolish not to come back to Minnesota’s largest city a fifth time. But without the stadium’s natural light, something is lost inside U.S. Bank Stadium.

Gridiron guys at courtside

While Auburn basketball alum Charles Barkley got most of the hype among celebrity fans heading into Saturday's seminfinal games, two guys known for touchdowns instead of tip-ins were the crowd favorites inside this stadium primarily built for football.

Perhaps the loudest cheers during a break in the action from the Virginia-Auburn game came when former Tigers Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson -- who starred for both the Los Angeles Raiders and baseball's Kansas City Royals -- was shown on the big screen.

The crowd erupted even louder during an early timeout in the Texas Tech-Michigan State game when Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter for the Spartans, was shown, decked out in his alma mater's green and white colors.

Thank you for the music

It’s unlikely that more than a handful of today’s college students were even born 25 years ago when legendary Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain died of a self-inflicted gunshot. Regardless, the Auburn pep band performed a fantastic rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at halftime of the first game on Saturday.