Wiedmer: Marking my 25th Final Four

Wiedmer: Marking my 25th Final Four

March 30th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Syracuse's Anthony Carmelo celebrates during the title game against Kansas in 2003.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

April 4, 1994. Charlotte Coliseum. Sometime around 11:30 p.m.

Out on the basketball court stood Boss Hog Nolan Richardson and his Arkansas Razorbacks, joyously celebrating their 76-72 victory over Duke in the NCAA title game.

Losing in the Final Four semis to the same Blue Devils program four years earlier, Richardson had grumbled during the game, "The establishment won't let us win."

But now his "Forty Minutes of Hell" defense had produced such a heavenly result that even First Fan William Jefferson Clinton -- especially First Fan William Jefferson Clinton -- felt the need to escape the safety of his Secret Service-smothered luxury box to move closer to the floor.

Then again, what American president ever bucked the establishment more than Arkansas native Clinton?

Anyway, finding myself no more than six feet from our Commander in Chief as he soaked it all in, I asked, "So, Mr. President, what were you thinking when Scotty Thurman took the [game-winning] shot?"

Replied Clinton, his soft Southern drawl at its best, his blue eyes locking on mine as only Clinton can, his mouth breaking into that slightly crooked, Elvis-esque grin, "Well, I was hoping it would go in."

Without thinking, I boldly introduced myself. The First Fan firmly shook my hand. If only they'd had iPhones back then.

Whatever your politics -- Republican, Democratic or Lady Gaga write-in -- shaking the hand of the 42nd president of the United States isn't something you're likely to forget.

So as I make my way to New Orleans today to report on my 25th straight Final Four for this newspaper, allow me to recall a few of the rest of my favorite things about the past 24 NCAA tournament final weekends.

BEST TEAM - The 1990 UNLV Runnin' Rebels. Playing a game that clearly was a mile high above their competition that year in Denver, the desert devils of Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and Co., pummeled the Blue Devils of Duke 103-73 in the final to finish 30-5.

In terms of future NBA talent, you could argue that both Kentucky's 1996 champs and North Carolina's 2009 winners had more talent, but not since UCLA's Alcindor and Walton years has anyone looked more invincible at the Final Four than UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian's Rebs.

Or as Duke's Christian Laettner observed with a possible nod to Tarkanian's nickname, "Chomp, chomp. It was like being eaten alive by a shark."

BEST PLAYER - Kansas forward Danny Manning in1988. Matched in the title game against an Oklahoma team that swept the Jayhawks during the regular season, Manning scored 31 points and pulled down 18 rebounds as Kansas stunned the heavily favored Sooners 83-79. Suddenly KU coach Larry Brown's ethically challenged decision years earlier to hire Danny's dad Ed as an assistant turned brilliant. Danny and the Miracles, indeed.

BEST SEMIFINAL - Duke's revenge on UNLV in 1991. Three-hundred and sixty-two days after their 30-point loss to the Rebs in the NCAA title game, the Blue Devils shocked all of college basketball by upsetting an undefeated Rebs squad 79-77 in the semis at Indianapolis's Hoosier Dome. To make it more surprising, the rosters were almost identical save for some Dookie freshman named Grant Hill. Hmmmm. Two nights later, Duke would hand coach Mike Krzyzewski the first of his four national championships.

BEST MOMENT - KU's Mario Chalmers knocking down the 3-pointer to force overtime against Memphis in 2008. John Calipari's Tigers had led by nine points with 2:14 to play but missed free throws, and timely Kansas shots handed KU the ball down three in the final 10 seconds. Calipari ordered his players to foul, but they couldn't get a whistle and Chalmers couldn't find anything but the bottom of the net on his 3-pointer with less than three seconds in regulation. A stunned Memphis bunch felt the blues like never before in the overtime, falling 75-68.

As it turns out, the NCAA later stripped the Tigers of their Final Four appearance, ruling Derrick Rose ineligible because of academic issues. But one can't help but wonder if college athletics' governing body would have had the guts to strip the Tigers of the title if Chalmers had missed and Elvis U. had finished first instead of second.

BEST GAME - Kansas's win over OU is a keeper from '88. So, too, Syracuse KU in 2003 when the Orange's Hakim Warrick blocked Michael Lee's 3 at the horn. And who could forget Duke-Butler two years ago, when the Bulldogs' Gordon Heyward launched the shot almost heard 'round the world, only to watch it barely bounce away and give Coach K title No. 4?

But the best title game of my 25 years came in 1989, when Michigan outlasted Seton Hall in overtime 80-79 thanks to two Rumeal Robinson free throws with less than three seconds to play. Glen Rice scored 31 points for the Wolverines and their new coach Steve Fisher, a UM assistant who was handed the head job just before the tournament after it leaked that Bill Frieder was leaving for Arizona State after the season and UM athletic director Bo Schembechler proclaimed, "A Michigan man will coach Michigan."

On the other side, playing for P.J. Carlesimo -- the only bearded coach ever to reach the Final Four -- John Morton pumped through 35 for the Pirates.

BEST COACHING JOB - Kansas coach Larry Brown against Oklahoma in 1988. Playing at breakneck speed the first half, KU entered the locker room in a 50-50 tie. In the second half the Jayhawks ran clock against the befuddled Sooners, who fell 83-79. Brilliant stuff.

BEST UNEXPECTED PLAYER PERFORMANCE - Syracuse freshman guard Gerry McNamara scored all 18 of his points on six 3-pointers to help the Orange shock Kansas 81-78 after KU had crushed Marquette and Dwyane Wade 94-61 in one semifinal.

BEST PREDICTION FOR THIS YEAR - In keeping with the history of this tournament inside the Superdome -- Michael Jordan's game-winner against Georgetown in 1982, Keith Smart from almost the same spot to put Indiana over Syracuse in 1987, Chris Webber calling a timeout Michigan didn't have in 1993, Warrick's block on Kansas in 2003 -- I'll take Kentucky senior Darius Miller to knock down a triple inside the final minute to subdue Kansas.

But regardless of who wins among heavyweights KU, UK, Louisville and Ohio State this weekend in N'Awlins, someone from college hoops' establishment once again will win it all.