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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

A Final Four worth watching, barely

Sunday victories by traditional powers Duke and Michigan State save the NCAA, and CBS, from a potentially dire fate: A Final Four populated by lesser-known programs and devoid of star power.

March 28, 2010|By Chris Dufresne

Let's cut to the Indy car chase and say what most of America and CBS are thinking: This year's Final Four got saved Sunday by Michigan State and Duke.

Pour yourself a beverage, perhaps a Captain (Raymar) Morgan.

What might have been — Tennessee vs. Butler in one game, West Virginia vs. Baylor in the other — would have been a reason next weekend to, what, clean out the gutters?

Not that Tennessee isn't a fine team, once you set aside a season filled with gun charges and player suspensions. Or that Baylor, no matter how Waco it might have been, didn't deserve a trip to Indianapolis.

A tournament already missing UCLA, North Carolina, Connecticut and Indiana, though, didn't really need a Final Four that resembled the NIT.

It needed star power.

So thanks, Michigan State, for hightailing out of the Midwest after a thrilling one-point victory over Tennessee in St. Louis.

Raymar Morgan's free throw with 1.8 seconds left clinched it, 70-69, for Michigan State. After Morgan intentionally missed his second toss, Tennessee had a chance with 1.6 seconds left but decided an inbounds pass into the backcourt was the proper play. Duke fans might have suggested the longer inbounds pass that worked so well against Kentucky in 1992.

Duke, in beating Baylor on Sunday to claim the South, became the only No. 1-seeded team to make it to the last weekend.

Michigan State and Duke hardly could have gotten here by more different routes. The Spartans sweated out four tournament wins by a total of 13 points, while Duke won four games by 64.

In Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Indianapolis gets celebrity coaches who have combined for four national titles and 17 Final Fours.

This is the sixth trip for Izzo, which ties him with Denny Crum and Adolph Rupp on the all-time list. The only coaches who have appeared in more are John Wooden (12), Dean Smith (11), Krzyzewski (11) and Roy Williams (seven).

Welcome to a Final Four that works — and has something for everyone. It blends familiar story lines with new ones and features lightning-rod Duke, the franchise people either love to hate or hate to love.

This year's Final Four epitomizes a season that really made no sense.

"This is a bizarre year, I've got to admit," Izzo said Sunday.

Michigan State vs. Butler is a No. 5 vs. a No. 5.

Anybody have that?

These teams have matured since November, when they were showered with preseason hype they didn't live up to. Michigan State made a run to the national-title game last year before losing to North Carolina, but the vibe just wasn't there early as Izzo dealt with discipline problems and the erratic play of Durrell Summers, who scored 21 in Sunday's win.

"It's been a bumpier road," Izzo said.

It got real bumpy in the second round against Maryland when star point guard Kalin Lucas tore his Achilles' tendon, but it worked out when backup Korie Lucious stepped in to hit the winning three-pointer in that game.

Butler is a terrific story — it isn't often the host school also puts a team in the event — yet the Bulldogs are far from the huggable "underdog" story people will make them out to be. This is not the movie that was filmed in Butler's gym, Hinkle Fieldhouse. Butler has won 24 straight games after an 8-4 start and arrives as a No. 5-seeded school (Kansas, in 1988, won the national title as a No. 6).

" Hoosiers"?

"I've never seen it," Butler guard Shelvin Mack said. "People are getting on me to watch the movie, but I haven't found the time to fit it into my schedule."

Playing near home doesn't guarantee success. You could ask Michigan State, the sentimental favorite last year in Detroit before losing the title game to unsentimental North Carolina.

West Virginia vs. Duke is No. 2 vs. No. 1.

The last time West Virginia made it to the Final Four, in 1959, the Mountaineers had Jerry West on their roster. This team has Jerry's son, Jonnie, so go ahead and run with that karma.

West Virginia, champion of the Big East tournament, was always a serious Final Four threat. Expectations were tempered a bit last Tuesday when, two days before the regional semifinals, starting point guard Darryl Bryant broke his foot in practice.

Funny how dings work out: West Virginia, without Bryant, easily beat Washington and then dispatched No. 1 Kentucky. The hero was Bryant's backup, Joe Mazzulla, who scored 17 points.

"Forty-nine states picked us to lose," senior guard Da'Sean Butler said after Saturday's win over Kentucky. "Obviously, we wanted to make everybody upset."

The coaching matchup, Bob Huggins vs. Krzyzewski, is intriguing. It has been 18 years since Huggins took Cincinnati to the Final Four, and now he's back at his alma mater. Huggins, who left Kansas State for West Virginia in 2007, has survived a massive heart attack and a career-threatening DUI arrest.

"I think the first day I was there I told them I came back to win a national championship," Huggins said. "I came back to win it for the university."

Coach K has won everything you can win in coaching.

Coach H has won everything except a title.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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