This year's men's NCAA basketball tournament culminates this weekend with a Final Four which nearly no one saw coming. Butler and Michigan State, both five-seeds, will face each other, while second-seeded West Virginia will face off against top-seeded Duke. The semifinals reflect the egalitarian nature of the tournament and emphasize the reasons why the NBA is for basketball junkies but March Madness is for everybody.
The first two weekends of this year's tournament had more than their fair share of upsets, thrilling finishes, tremendous story lines and a lifetime of memories for upstart mid-major conference programs. Many of the highest profiles schools, like Kentucky, Kansas, Syracuse and Villanova, have been eliminated and the biggest superstars like John Wall, Evan Turner and DeMarcus Cousins are no longer in action.
Each of the four finalists has taken a circuitous road to get to this year's finals in Indianapolis. Both Michigan State and West Virginia lost their point guards to late, season ending injuries and only made it through thanks to depth, team chemistry and grit.
Duke, the only top seed to make it into the Final Four, was considered a poor sister to the other number ones; Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse.
Though they had the easiest bracket, they have emerged as a finalist with a suddenly effective front line.
Butler, which will be playing in front of a hometown audience in Indianapolis, parlayed a string of upsets to become the rare team from a non-headline conference to go to the Final Four and the first since 11th-seeded George Mason University four years ago.
March Madness is known as a guard dominated tournament but this year's Final Four will be coach dominated. West Virginia, Duke and Michigan State have all made it this far due the brilliant work of Bob Huggins, Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo respectively. Izzo, in particular, is now gaining recognition as a March Madness specialist, having won one national championship and making it to six Final Fours in 12 seasons with various levels of talent.
Izzo entered this year's post-season having lost Kalin Lucas, his point guard and floor leader, and was beset with off-court issues. According to ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb on tournament eve, "the only thing that Michigan State has going for them today is Tom Izzo."
Michigan State proceeded to the Final Four with renewed team chemistry, a new set of heros and last second wins over Maryland and Tennessee.
Coach Bob Huggins has overcome personal trials before taking West Virginia to college basketball's biggest stage in his third season at his hometown alma mater.
Eight years ago, Huggins nearly succumbed to a heart attack and three years later was fired after 16 volatile seasons at Cincinnati in the aftermath of a DUI arrest. During this year's Big East tournament and now during March Madness, West Virginia has clearly established itself as the creme of the nation's best conference.
Both West Virginia and Michigan State are sources of inspiration for the downtrodden states in America which they represent. West Virginia is in the heart of Appalachia, one of the poorest areas of the U.S. Residents of Michigan, one area hardest hit by the recent economic downturn, began adopting Izzo's Spartans as their own when it made it to last year's championship game in Detroit.
Duke is returning to the Final Four for the first time in six years. A perennial championship contender from 1986-2004, when they appeared in 10 Final Fours and captured 3 national crowns, Duke has been Cinderella food in recent years, falling to lower seeds early in the tournament.
During this year's tournament, led by point guard Jon Scheyer, tough, competitive big men, cloying defense and another masterful coaching job by Coach K, Duke in unspectacular but effective fashion, has made it back, and is challenging for another title.
Butler, of course, is the Cinderella story of the Final Four. They are a collegiate extension of the Hoosier motif - small town Indiana basketball besting big town rivals against all odds.
Although Butler is situated in Indianapolis, they have a roster with rotation players from small Indiana towns like New Castle, Elletsville, Connersville and Brownsburg and led by a NBA prospect named Gordon Hayward who is straight out of corn-fed America.
An improbable Butler victory, would certainly put the finishing touches on this year's improbable tourney.