Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Now playing:
On Air
Listen Live
(Scott Sandulli/Blaze Radio)
(Scott Sandulli/Blaze Radio)

Sights and Sounds from Final Four Friday

The Christmas Eve of college basketball has come. While Phoenix is no North Pole, presents are aplenty under the tree of State Farm Stadium. A holiday haul of an all-time underdog, a top-flight offense, the sport’s most dominant force, and the reigning national champions isn’t one many on the nice list will return on Dec. 26. With NC State, Alabama, Purdue, and UConn all at the end of the road (it took the Huskies a little while longer than others), fans began to tear the wrapping paper apart ahead of the 2024 Final Four.

With the doors open to the public on Friday, each squad took its first steps on the iconic court atop the carpet where a football field usually lies. With the hardwood taking center stage this weekend, most entered the light in awe and amazement at their soon-to-be dance floor. The exception? The same team that stood alone in the spotlight before.

Of the four remaining schools, only NC State and UConn have won national championships in men’s basketball. Widdle it down to the last quarter-century, and the Huskies stand alone on five separate occasions, including their dominant march to head coach Dan Hurley’s first title last April. Time and time again, great teams in the sport have proven the difficulty of defending that crown. Since Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators in 2007 and 2008, no program has been able to even return to the Final Four, let alone raise its second trophy in as many years. This Huskies group has been deemed different in its own pursuit thanks to its dominance and dogged determination. 

“The run that this group has been on has been historic,” Hurley said. “Historic within the UConn program and then the first defending national champ to return to the Final Four since 2007. It's been a historic run.”

When the Huskies made history in Houston last April, Cam Spencer was a role player on lowly Rutgers. One year later, the senior wing is the top shooter and shouter in the Huskies' remarkable season. Displaying a sweet stroke with unmatched intensity, Spencer paced UConn in three-point shooting while being the vocal leader on the court for the 35-3 Big East champions. 

On Friday, in open practice, Spencer displayed this by cashing 12 consecutive threes in front of a large navy and white contingent, nodding his head after every swish. When unlucky number thirteen clanked off the front rim, Spencer sunk, hands on knees as if he had just missed a game-winner at the buzzer. After a couple of seconds, he came back to his shooting position before depositing his next shot calmly through the net. Strictly business, as all things are in the village of Storrs. 

“It’s a business trip,” Spencer said. “More noise and outside stuff, but we’re focused on the process that got us to this point. Winning a national championship, that’s why you come to UConn.”

Diamonds form under pressure; no team has had more of that in this tournament than Purdue. After becoming just the second one-seed to fall in the first round last year, the Boilers returned with a vengeance, storming to 29 wins, another Big Ten regular season title, as well as the top-seed line. The fuel to the train has been none other than AP Player of The Year Zach Edey. We all know about the 7-foot-4 mammoth and the historic production he’s put forth in Purdue’s first Final Four trip since 1980. 

But what little see (how could they? The average human being doesn’t measure up to his shoulders) is the total focus in his eyes. At that stature, not much can really get in the way, but as Edey walked on and off the court Friday, he, along with his teammates, was stoic. No one in black and gold said a word but kept their heads high like a military march. What else would you expect from a group that has yet to accomplish its expected mission?

“Our losses have been to more of the low—to mid-major teams,” head coach Matt Painter said of his previous teams at Purdue. “That's something you take a hard look at; we got beat by a 16 seed.”

The notion of mockery and embarrassment surrounding the Boilers over the last few seasons has only fueled Painter and his players to rid the bridesmaid label as first-time regional champions.

“Coach said we're going to be past players for 50 years,” Fletcher Loyer said. We've got all the time in the world to enjoy it. We'll make sure we're locked in and making the most of it, making sure we're ready for tip-off come Saturday.”

Little would’ve looked at you funny for having the Huskies and Boilers going this far in your bracket, but Alabama and NC State indeed weren’t favorites. One year after it seemingly being their year, the Crimson Tide have ridden an aggressive offensive style to its first Final Four in program history. Over in Raleigh, the Wolfpack are playing bracket-buster 41 years after an improbably run through the conference and national tournaments that culminated in the program’s second championship at the buzzer in 1983. The pair of party crashers have made it to the desert in different ways but are in no way satisfied with just throwing the coned-shaped hat on and calling it a day.

“We were an underdog,” Alabama head coach Nate Oats said. Nobody expected us to be here. We weren't playing our best basketball. We had to sell our guys that we could make the run before the tournament. Now that we made the run and got to the Final Four, I want our guys playing loose and free, but I want them to think they got a chance to win. If you know me, I'm not going into this game like ‘I'm just happy to be here.’”

On the contrary, NC State head coach Kevin Keats couldn’t wipe the smile off his face all morning. The first Final Four feeling and/or the infectious personality of star center DJ Burns Jr. can do that to anyone, but for a man in the same seat as the legendary positivity of Jim Valvano, you almost have to be. If he wants to stay akin to Jimmy V, Keatts will have to finish making his own history this weekend.

“I do think our guys are creating their own situation. But we will be blessed. If you get a chance to be mentioned in the same sentence with the '83 team, that's not a bad thing. That's actually a great thing. But I do think we're creating our own moments.”

With no shortage of storylines and a trophy to be awarded, the Valley is at the top of the sports world for the next three days.

Similar Posts