Greg Cote

Why Tournament’s men’s Final Four is refreshing, exciting mix despite what’s missing | Opinion

Duke leaves in tears after Elite Eight loss to Michigan State

The Blue Devils leave the court in tears after losing 68-67 to Michigan State.
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The Blue Devils leave the court in tears after losing 68-67 to Michigan State.

There is a lot missing from this NCAA Tournament men’s Final Four, sure. But do not lament what isn’t here. There are reasons to celebrate instead.

We don’t have epic rivals North Carolina and Duke angling to meet each other in the title game. No.

We don’t have the game’s best player in Zion Williamson, either.

Don’t have blue blood programs that are interwoven deep in the sport’s history.

Also don’t have the lovable, double-digit-seed Cinderella still dancing around..

So what. Don’t need any of that. Because what this Final Four of Michigan State vs. Texas Tech and Virginia vs. Auburn does provide is the unexpected, and it’s refreshing. There is a legit argument why any of the four surviving teams might be climbing the ladder and snipping the championship net, which isn’t always the case. For three that would make history, and for the other it would be a long time coming.

Auburn and Texas Tech have never won a national championship or even reached the Final Four before. Virginia is seeking its first national title in its first Final Four appearance in 35 years, since 1984. Michigan State is the most pedigreed program still standing with two championships from nine previous Final Fours, but its last national crown was back in 2000, (Anybody remember Morris Peterson and Mateen Cleaves?)

The seven programs to have appeared in the most Final Fours are Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina, Ohio State and UCLA. None of them are here, headed to Minneapolis. This is the first time since 1987 — 1987! — that the Final Four has not included at least one of those storied big seven programs.

Blue blood is fine. But new blood has its points, too.

Sports can have a sameness to it at the top. New England in the NFL, Golden State in the NBA, Clemson and Alabama in college football, Red Sox and Yankees always good.

This feels fresh, no matter what happens.

No Cinderellas here. Nobody snuck in. It’s the first Final Four since 2012 with all top-five seeds. The four combined records this season: 125-24. And yet there will be a feelgood-story quality to whomever prevails, with three schools that have never won it all and the other, Michigan State, arguably the best program and best coach since 2000 to have not won.

This coming Saturday’s semifinals:

No. 2 seed Michigan State vs. No. 3 Texas Tech — Spartans out of the Big Ten are a 3-point betting pick over the Big 12’s Red Raiders, with Michigan State 7-4 odds as second favorite to win it all and Texas Tech 4-1.

Spartans ousted overall No. 1 Duke and Williamson, have won 14 of their past 15 and have in Tom Izzo a coach in his eighth Final Four vs. a combined zero before this for the other three coaches. Michigan State also might have the best player in the Final Four in Cassius Winston. Winston’s 20points/10 assists to beat Duke was only the Spartans’ third 20-/10 ever in the NCAAs, following two guys named Magic Johnson and Draymond Green.

Texas Tech, though, has won its four tournament games by a combined 60 points, ousted Gonzaga to get here, and has an 18.9-point scorer and top-10 NBA draft pick in guard Jarrett Culver. Not tyo mention the hunger to be the first school since UConn in 1999 to win a national title from its first Final Four appearance.

No. 1 seed Virginia vs. No. 5 Auburn — Cavaliers out of the ACC are a 5 1/2-point favorite over the SEC’s Tigers, with Virginia a 3-2 betting pick to win it all and Auburn a 7-1 longshot.

Virginia, the only No. 1 seed left, play a notoriously slow-tempo game but is great on offense and defense led by a possible top-five NBA draft pick in forward DeAndre Hunter. Cavs’ coach is Tony Bennett. Unfortunately it isn’t the 92-year-old crooner, but Virginia is a great story anyway, in its first Final Four since Ronald Reagan’s first term.

Don’t discount Auburn, though. Tigers are fast-paced and offense-minded, but played great D in ousting Kentucky. If top scorer Bryce Brown is dropping 3’s like he can, Auburn has an upset shot to deliver the SEC’s first national title since Kentucky did it in 2012.

This Final Four was minted from the most exciting Elite Eight in memory, with the four games won by a combined 12 points (closest total margin ever for the round), and two going to overtime.

Here’s betting the season’s last three games live up to that standard in a three-day burst of April Madness.

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