The curious case of Brady Manek and four more reasons to return to the Final Four
You've got the winningest coach of all time calling it a career, the memory of the great Dean Smith, two other gurus, too. Even Jim Nance can't ruin it.
Momentarily, we’re going to offer five great reasons why this Final Four is exceedingly cool in an age it’s often not, because it’s hard to care about who’s competing for the national championship when you don’t know the players.
That’s the thing.
That’s the thing that’s made filling out brackets for a buck, two or five dollars one of the last national activities in this country having to do with sports, while actually watching the Final Four and national championship game no longer is.
From 1975 to 1999, the least watched men’s title game still claimed 25.4 million viewers.
That was 1978, Kentucky and Duke, won by the Wildcats, coached by Joe B. Hall, the old racist Adolph Rupp’s successor, who made it a point to announce he’d be recruiting Black athletes upon being named the new coach in April of 1972, because he felt he had to because it wasn’t happening under Rupp.
Doesn’t seem so long ago.
The most during that span?
The next year, naturally, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Indiana State and Michigan State and 35.1 million watching at home.
In 1992 and ’93, Michigan’s Fab Five were a phenomenon and against Duke and North Carolina 34.3 million watched their first final and 32.9 million the second.
Somehow, Duke-Wisconsin, in 2015, drew 28.3 million, but the trend is clearly going the other way.
Just 16.5 million watched Villanova and Michigan play in 2018, just 19.6 million watched Virginia and Texas Tech in 2019 and, after the coronavirus stole the tournament in 2020, just 16.9 million came back to watch Baylor and Gonzaga last year.
The trend is bad because we quit knowing who the players were when they began bypassing the college altogether or playing just a year before leaving.
We used to watch them because we knew them, they way we knew Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill at Duke; Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose at Michigan; Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony at UNLV; Patrick Ewing, Sleepy Floyd and Fred Brown at Georgetown; Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Larry Micheaux — Phi Slama Jama — at Houston; James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Michael Jordan at North Carolina.
Now, there may be insane talents in our midst, but we have but one season to get to know them in a sports landscape that continues to cede more and more real estate to the NFL and the NBA and less to everything else.
So we fill out the brackets, then lose much of our interest by the time a champ is crowned.
This season’s not different.
But this Final Four, at least, hearkens back to a time we used to care a lot.
That, and there’s some straight up Sooner interest, too, so let’s get to that list.
1. The curious case of Brady Manek, because among the things close Sooner observers expected to happen this season, watching the Harrah product, who could never manage enough consistency to help take OU very far, become the biggest reason No. 8-seed North Carolina’s back in the Final Four wasn’t one of them.
At OU, Manek was always capable, yet horribly inconsistent, just as likely to be the reason the Sooners won, playing up to his apparent talents, or lost, by not approaching them.
Over 122 games at OU, he netted 20 or more points 12 times and 18 or 19 another eight . He also scored six or less 28 times, seven of them in his original senior season.
At North Carolina, he’s hit for 20 or more 10 times this season alone and scored six or fewer just twice.
He’s shooting 61 percent from within the arc and 39.8 percent from beyond it, both career highs, and after never averaging even one assist per game at OU, he’s averaging 1.9 for the Tar Heels and since the NCAA Tournament began, playing the best basketball of his life, he’s averaging 21.5 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and and just a single turnover.
Somehow, confidence he couldn’t keep here has washed over him there.
But it’s fun to watch.
2. Coach K, am I right?
Part of me doesn’t want Krzyzewski to claim his sixth national championship. I don’t want it to happen because it’s too hokey, too storybook, too prone to conspiracy theory, just too much.
Yes, the Yankees got to the 2001 World Series, two months after 9-11, but Arizona still won it.
And yet, it’s kind of incredible.
In my head, the fact Coach K’s squared off with other North Carolina coaches significantly longer than he squared off with Dean Smith, who also reached the Final Four his last season, in 1997, is impossible and yet very much true.
He’s been a college head coach since 1975 and at Duke since 1980, has won 1,202 games, is approaching his 12th Final Four, including five straight over one stretch and seven of nine between 1986 and ’94 and the last two times he’s taken the Blue Devils this far, in 2010 and ’15, they went ahead and won it.
A good question is how should great coaching be defined, because nobody’s going to put John Wooden in Krzyzewski’s shadow, yet a great case can be made what Krzyzewski’s done in the modern game — bigger tourney, talent spread out far more widely, players who don’t stick around — is a more difficult task than what Wooden managed from the late 40s into the 70s at UCLA.
3. Carolina, baby.
Were I 60, maybe UCLA would be the program whose entrance into the Final Four would make it seem like, you know, a real Final Four. But I’m not 60, only 53, so it’s North Carolina.
Since my sports brain came online, the Tar Heels have been to the Final Four 12 times, won five national championship and, if you can believe it, Roy Williams won three of them, one more than Dean Smith, who might belong in the people hall of fame, not just the basketball one or the college basketball one.
Over one stretch, Smith guided the Tar Heels to 13 straight Sweet 16s, which is unthinkable, and when his 30-year assistant, Bill Guthridge, took over for just three seasons, two of them finished in the Final Four, too.
Williams resurrected the program after Matt Doherty simply didn’t have it, and was there for 18 seasons after running Kansas for 15. Now, in year one, Hubert Davis has brought the Tar Heels back.
Thanks to Brady Manek.
Who’d have thunk?
4. Villanova never loses.
It may be a law or something.
Jay Wright’s taken taken the Wildcats to three Final Fours and coached them to national championships their previous two trips.
After going 52-46 his first three seasons there, he’s gone 468-150 over his last 18. The Wildcats have won 30 games in five of their last eight seasons.
Wright’s a superstar.
I can’t tell you one guy he’s got on his team, but that puts me on an overcrowded boat, because that’s college basketball these days. We know the coaches and the programs, not the players. And in this time, we can do no better than Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Villanova.
That a super senior from Harrah’s responsible for the most tradition-rich of the bunch making it is icing on the cake.
5. We must go deep on Bill Self, too. It’s his fourth trip to the Final Four, and if that doesn’t bowl you over he’s also taken Kansas to four other Elite Eights over his 19 seasons in Lawrence, and still his guru status may best be explained by his success prior to Kansas, going 39-16 his last two seasons at Oral Roberts, winning 32 games and taking Tulsa to the Elite Eight in 2000, averaging 26 wins over three seasons at Illinois.
He’s the can’t miss kid.
All that and if you’ve ever watched him in a postgame press conference, rather than deflecting, he actually answers the questions, is never defensive and sounds like a guy with no doubt about what he’s talking about, be it positive or negative about his team, and he’s willing to be both.
Talk about a guy who’s earned his way.
6. If only Jim Nance weren’t calling it.
Can you believe he’s had the Final Four mic since ’91.
I miss Dick Enberg.
But it’s a small point.
Go with the first five.
It’s nice to have a Final Four that’s demanding to be seen.
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