NEW ORLEANS — Not all Final Four games are created equal.
Despite the enormous popularity of college basketball's season closer, there are some years when one of the national semifinal games draws a lot more attention than the other.
This year is a pretty good example.
Saturday's first game, the intra-commonwealth matchup of Kentucky and Louisville, has drawn the bulk of the attention in the buildup to the fifth Final Four played in New Orleans. It's not just that the fans of the schools don't get along or agree on basic color schemes or that John Calipari of Kentucky and Rick Pitino of Louisville are two of the sport's more recognizable and thus more written about coaches.
It's all of that and more.
Sorry, Ohio State and Kansas, but that's the way it is. The great thing is the winners of both the marquee game and the other game meet for the championship.
Thankfully, not everybody is thinking the way the majority of fans are.
"I haven't noticed too much," Ohio State guard Aaron Craft said Friday when asked about the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry. "All four teams here are great. I think as a basketball team we've done a good job of focusing on our game and focusing on Kansas because, you know, they're a great basketball team. If we overlook them, we have all the outside distractions going on, we're going to go home. I think we've done a great job of just focusing in on what we need to focus on and not letting too many outside things get inside of our circle."
Quite a few teams have done just that and overcome being the other game.
No Final Four was more dominated by one semifinal over the other than in 1983.
Houston, known then as Phi Slamma Jamma, featured Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler on a roster of players who spent most of their time above the rim while crowds oohed and aahed.
Louisville had an incredible group of high-flying athletes as well with the McCray brothers, Milt Wagner and Billy Thompson. The VCRs — young people should consult a history book — were set for that game.
Georgia and North Carolina State was just going to be two hours to talk about how great the other game was.
Houston beat Louisville 94-81 in the game everyone was waiting for. Turned out everybody was 48 hours off. North Carolina State, which beat Georgia 67-60, showed up Monday night and provided what is still one of televised sports' best moments.
Using strategy to take advantage of Houston's poor free throw shooting, the Wolfpack pulled off the upset when Lorenzo Charles dunked Dereck Whittenburg's airball. Coach Jim Valvano, who went on to touch a lot of hearts in his battle with cancer, ran around the court in Albuquerque looking for someone to hug.
Whittenburg recounted that Valvano was simple in his halftime speech with his team leading 33-25.
"All he said was, 'Twenty more minutes to make the dream come true,'" Whittenburg said.
Other dreams have come true with the winner of the other game finding a way to ruin a championship scenario.
In 1985, Georgetown and St. John's, two Big East foes who were the only teams to be ranked No. 1 that season and who featured future NBA stars and Hall of Famers Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, met in the semifinals. Georgetown won, but the coronation was ruined by a third team from that conference, Villanova.
The Wildcats, taking advantage of the last tournament played without a shot clock, hit 76.8 percent from the field — 9 of 10 in the second half — and stunned the world.
"Every one of you people said we had no shot, we shouldn't even have played," Villanova coach Rollie Massimino lectured the media.
There have been other Final Fours like 1991 when undefeated UNLV and Duke met in the semifinals. After the Blue Devils stunned the Runnin' Rebels, coach Mike Krzyzewski was running around the court stopping his players from celebrating and admonishing them that they "had another game to go."
In 1996, Calipari and Pitino had a situation similar to the one they are in this season. Calipari's Massachusetts team and Pitino's Kentucky squad had spent a combined 15 weeks on top of the poll. The Mississippi State-Syracuse game didn't draw much attention compared to the first Pitino-Calipari Final Four meeting.
"Well, the two best teams that year played in that semifinal. They shouldn't have," Calipari said Friday. "Now they've redone the tournament so those two teams only face each other in the final game, the 1 and 2 seed."
That still doesn't keep one semifinal game from drawing more attention than the other.
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