And then there were four.  When the music stopped Sunday night in Philadelphia (thanks Turner, for ruining my chance of viewing the repeat of “Grease Live” on FOX), this year’s Final Four boasts a major surprise, a redemption story, a blueblood and the nation’s best player-not necessarily in that order.  Two local schools that went into the season with high hopes (and preseason top ten rankings to match) saw their seasons end in different ways…but the longing for playing in the final weekend is somewhat similar.  Meanwhile, George Washington still lives (albeit in the NIT)…

 

Virginia (29-8) saw its season end with a 68-62 loss to Syracuse in the Midwest Regional Finals-and the way they got there was just as surprising as the result.  After carving out a 54-39 lead by diligently getting decent opportunities on offense and delivering the usual dominant defensive effort (Orange were hitting 29% of their shots at the time), the world turned upside down.  Over the next six minutes of gametime the Cavaliers made 2-8 shots and committed 3 turnovers, while the Orange sunk 9-10 shots (3-3 from three-point range), were 4-4 from the free throw line and outrebounded UVa 4-1.  That 25-4 run was more than enough to withstand Syracuse going 0-6 from the field over the last 3:27.  The press was not only causing miscues…it left the Cavaliers off-balance even when they did get into their halfcourt offense.  Just like the last three years generated remembrances of the Ralph Sampson era with the first ACC regular season crown (and a Tournament title that Ralph & company couldn’t win), the final game for seniors Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill ends one step shy of the Final Four.  The Syracuse team that becomes the fourth double-digit and first #10 seed to reach the Tournament’s final weekend is more like the 1986 LSU squad than recent Cinderellas George Mason and VCU.  For the record those Tigers dealt with a midseason outbreak of chicken pox;  not the same as coach Jim Boeheim’s nine-game suspension by the NCAA but just as jarring to a season.

 

Maryland (27-9) couldn’t keep up with Kansas in a 79-63 Regional Semifinal loss…as Perry Ellis proved he was more than a clothing line by making 6 of 9 shots in the paint.  Diamond Stone?  Five points (2-4 shooting) and four rebounds with four fouls over 21 minutes.  The freshman’s NBA stock has taken somewhat of a hit since his 39 points and 12 rebound game against Penn State.  That game actually took place in 2015…although it feels like it occurred even further back.  Stone’s status as well as that of Melo Trimble and Robert Carter Jr will be a topic over the next few months;  most of the Terrapin faithful will be happy to see 2 of 3 return while the more realistic are hoping to get just one of the trio back.  Seniors Jake Layman and Rasheed Sulaimon are both definitely gone…and both will be remembered fondly as they were instrumental in getting this program back to Saturday in the conference tournament and to the second weekend of the NCAA’s.  Can coach Mark Turgeon keep the Terps there on a regular basis?  Kansas operates with a much different worldview:  Bill Self may have a dozen Big 12 regular season titles in his pocket, but Saturday’s 64-59 loss to Villanova was his fourth in six regional final appearances.  The Perry Ellis that blew up against the Terps busted against the Wildcats:  4 points (on 1-for-5 shooting) with 4 turnovers over 34 minutes.   Jay Wright vanquished the ghosts of recent brackets (first weekend losses as a top 2 seed in 2010, 2014 & 2015) as his team heads to Houston playing as well as anyone.

 

North Carolina and Oklahoma round out the Final Four…and while the Sooners boast the nation’s best player in Buddy Hield (37 points per game, 45% from 3-pt range in the Tournament), the Tar Heels have the best collection of talent-from Brice Johnson in the post to Marcus Paige on the perimeter.  Conventional wisdom would have UNC facing OU Monday night for the title, but the road to the Final Four is littered with the bones of schools that were once thinking that this was their year.  Can Saturday happen any sooner?

 

 

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