Finally Four…

So here it is, Saturday night of the Final Four. Four teams. Two games. Two spots in the national title game on Monday night.

There are those who love the Super Bowl. There are those who worship Sunday at the Masters. There are those who would pick the Kentucky Derby or the World Series or the NBA Finals.

But for me, this is the best sports day of the year.

What other day gives you TWO games in the same venue. Four legions of fans, all in the same building. Close to five hours of college basketball at the highest level.

I love everything about the Final Four. I love the storylines and the cheesy music and Jim Nantz on the microphone.

And I love all the stories that come out of the ultimate hoops festival.

Love the fact that you might step into an elevator with David Robinson. Love the fact that you might see legendary Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan strolling around a hotel lobby at 8:30 in the morning, looking like an old man trying to get an early start on his day of sightseeing.

Love the fact that you might randomly walk past a restaurant patio as former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon takes his seat (and a group of UCLA fans begins an impromptu chant of “EDDIE-O, EDDIE-O, EDDIE-O”).

Love the fact that you might randomly see former Wisconsin center Brian Butch walking down the street by himself and think — hey, it’s Brian Butch.

Love the college three-point and dunk contests that take place during Final Four weekend.*

*The following exchange took place during the college dunk contest at this year’s Final Four in Indianapolis.

Chris Roberts, who was a senior at Bradley this past season, had just thrown down a sick dunk and ESPN reporter Holly Rowe was waiting on the sidelines to interview him.

Rowe: So, Chris, what do you have to do to win this thing?
Roberts: Just go out, and keep making dunks

Well, sure… makes sense.

And lastly, I love the fact that you might accidentally pick a fight with a player from one of the Final Four teams just hours before the games begin.*

*All these things happened to me while I was at the 2008 Final Four in San Antonio, but the last one was the best. I was walking around the Riverwalk with Mark Dent and Daily Kansan photographer Jon Goering, and we stopped outside in a small patio area.

Of course, the talk turned to KU’s game against North Carolina, which would take place later on that night. We were half-heartedly breaking down North Carolina’s team, and Mark and I came to the consensus that the Tar Heels’ Danny Green was ridiculously overrated.

Then, as Mark blurted aloud that he thought Green more or less sucked, we turned around and saw Green standing just 10 feet away from us with a kid who looked like his younger brother.

Two things crossed my mind:

1. I really hope Danny Green didn’t hear us.
2. What the hell is Green doing here? KU plays North Carolina in like five hours.

But there’s still one thing that gives the Final Four its soul. And it’s the players.

You probably know that Kansas’ Cole Aldrich is leaving school early to enter the NBA Draft.

He announced his decision earlier this week at a press conference in Lawrence.

Aldrich had a pretty remarkable career at Kansas. He had a triple-double against Dayton in the 2009 NCAA Tournament. He never lost a game at Allen Fieldhouse. And he was a third-team All-American as a junior.

Still, as Aldrich reflected on three years at Kansas during his “I’m going to the NBA” press conference, I wonder if he thought about the night he went from little-used freshman to Kansas legend. The night he stepped off the bench and outplayed North Carolina’s national player of the year, Tyler Hansbrough, in front of the entire nation.

I can still remember the look on Aldrich face after Kansas took down Hansbrough and Roy Williams and the rest of the Tar Heels.

…The look on his face as he was asked about ripping a rebound from the clutches of Hansbrough.

It was a mix of pride and satisfaction and joy.

And that’s the Final Four. I can’t wait.

(Editor’s Note – Here is what I wrote about Aldrich on the night oh his coming-out party against North Carolina)

*****

SAN ANTONIO | Once upon a time, Cole Aldrich was an afterthought, the fourth big man off the bench — just another big body at Kansas’ coach Bill Self’s disposal.

On Saturday night against North Carolina, Aldrich etched his name onto the list of greatest relief performances in Kansas basketball history.

Kansas’ freshman center scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds off the bench in Kansas’ 84-66 victory against North Carolina, including one board which Aldrich snatched from the clutches of North Carolina All-American Tyler Hansbrough.

“I wasn’t gonna let go,” Aldrich said.

Aldrich’s supporting performance may go down in Kansas lore if the Jayhawks follow up their Saturday night victory with a victory and a national title on Monday.

And oddly enough, Self saw it coming.

Earlier this week Self corrected a reporter who had asked how important Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun and Darrell Arthur would be in Kansas’ attempt to contain North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough. Don’t forget about Cole, Self reminded.

Self’s prophecy came true.

“He may have won the game for us tonight as much as anybody,” Self said.

With seniors Sasha Kaun and Darnell Jackson both committing two early fouls, Bill Self faced a coaching calamity. Send Cole Aldrich, who averaged 8.1 minutes per game during the regular season, on to the floor to guard Hansbrough, the Tar Heels leading scorer and the AP National Player of the Year.

No sweat.

Aldrich responded with 13 first half minutes played, six points during Kansas’ fun-n-gun first half, and one rebound that Aldrich couldn’t help by smile about.

With 10 minutes left in the first half, and Kansas leading 31-10, Aldrich sprung from floor and ripped the ball away from a bewildered Hansbrough.

“Tyler usually outworks someone, but tonight, he got outworked,” Rush said.

Aldrich, along with help from Kaun, Jackson and Arthur held Hansbrough to 17 point and nine rebounds, a shade below his usual averages of 23.7 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.

“I don’t think he was quite used to four guys that can hold their own,” Aldrich said.

The Kansas frontcourt also controlled the glass, shouldering a 42-33 rebound advantage against their frontcourt foes from North Carolina.

“We knew we had to keep them off the glass to win the game,” Aldrich said.

Aldrich’s 6-foot-10 frame stood tall in Kansas’ victorious locker room, searching for words to describe his nation-wide coming-out party.

Aldrich finally settled on calling it,”…a blast.”

Kansas junior Matt Kleinnmann, sitting 35 feet to Aldrich’s left, had his own take on Aldrich’s first Final Four performance.

“He played like a man tonight,” Kleinnmann said.

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