John Shipley: Is this the NCAA’s first ‘I told you so’ basketball final?
MINNEAPOLIS -- There will be a first-time men’s college basketball champion crowned on Monday, April 8, and whether it’s Texas Tech or Virginia, there could be hell to pay for the nonbelievers. The question is whether the winner will feel obligated to rub anyone’s face in their success.
It seemed headed that way in the immediate wake of Saturday’s semifinals.
The Red Raiders and Cavaliers bring with them narratives as fun as they are inspiring, yet when asked about them after victories over Michigan State and Auburn, respectively, some bristled.
When it was suggested that Texas Tech, a team playing in its first Final Four, is an unlikely entrant in Monday night’s title game at U.S. Bank Stadium, coach Chris Beard told his inquisitor he respected the question so as to convey in no uncertain terms that he did not respect the question.
When a pair of Virginia players were asked what it meant to be at the doorstep of a national title after becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed last season, guard Ty Jerome gathered his thoughts before replying, “I feel like I get asked that after every round.”
When asked if he had anything to add, teammate Kyle Guy, the hero of Saturday’s 63-62 victory over Auburn, said he did not, “Just (that) you guys can ask that question again on Monday.”
Monday will mark the first time a pair of first-timers will play for the title game since Magic Johnson and Michigan State beat Larry Bird and Indiana State for all the marbles in 1979. The winner will be the first first-time men’s champion since Florida won the Midwest Region at the Metrodome before beating UCLA for the 2006 title. This should be fun, yet it doesn’t feel that way.
On Sunday, Jerome and Guy had lightened up a little, smiling as they recalled battling grade school bedtimes to watch late NCAA tournament tips before making a name for themselves as players. Cavs coach Tony Bennett acknowledged losing to Maryland-Baltimore County last season was a drag professionally but not the end of the world.
And Beard, well, maybe what you see is what you get. Certainly he doesn’t suffer those he considers fools gladly. When a reporter asked a question about the Red Raiders’ top-ranked defense on Sunday, for instance, he immediately wondered aloud why no one asks about his offense.
The Raiders and Cavaliers are riding the crest of a wave few of their peers will ever catch. Winning five consecutive NCAA tournament games is a rare feat. Like the lovers on Keats’ Grecian urn, these teams are enjoying a sense of anticipation so rare it might not happen again, certainly not in their professional lives.
Crowning a new champion should be fun, especially if it’s a team from the West Texas flatlands known mostly for being the birthplace of Buddy Holly and where Pat Mahomes played college football; especially if it’s a team that rises from the depths of tournament embarrassment to its pinnacle.
Yet one gets the feeling that Monday’s winner, whichever team it is, will wish a certain amount of pain on what Beard on Sunday called “the haters.” But no one watching from home will stumble to bed, stare at the ceiling and rue the day they doubted that Lubbock, Texas, is the cradle of college basketball. No one at the stadium will slink out, tails between their legs, to find a watering hole with enough spirits to drown their shame.
Students and alumni, or those few geniuses who might still have one of these teams alive in their bracket, certainly have a stake in the outcome, but if they’re disappointed on Monday, it won’t be because they were wrong about Texas Tech or Virginia. Don’t take it personally, fellas.
And for pity’s sake, don’t use the winner’s platform to say, “I told you so.”