April Madness

Can anyone beat UConn in the Final Four?

The national semi-finals are set for this coming Saturday and the national championship game for Monday in Arizona in the always-exciting NCAA basketball tournament.

That’s the big question. Connecticut has looked so unbeatable in its first four games it is hard to believe one of the other three teams can knock them off.’

I mean, they’ve demolished everyone, leading by as much as 30 points in each game they’ve played.

In the East regional final they broke open their matchup with Illinois with a 30-0 run.

The Huskies need two more wins to become the first school since Florida in 2006-07 to capture back-to-back championships.

They’ve got four future NBA players, and a head coach that knows how to keep them hungry and go for the jugular.

His name is Dan Hurley and he comes from an impressive coaching family.

His father, Bobby, was a legendary high school coach in New Jersey,  who dominated for years.

His brother, Bobby Jr. hasn’t hit the successes of the other two yet, and is currently leading Arizona State.

Dan has run through everyone so far, and he credits playing in the Big East for preparing his squad.

He claims that conference should have had more teams in the Big Dance and he’s right.

Seton Hall and St.John’s deserved to be in this year’s field for sure.

While all eyes are on whether UConn can roll to the Big Prize, surprisingly, I believe they are not the big story come this weekend.

I think North Carolina State is.

The Wolfpack dropped 10 of their last 14 games and had to play a qualifying game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

The only way N.C State could get in the NCAA tournament was to win the conference tournament.

That meant playing and winning five straight games in five days.

They did just that, and haven’t stopped since.

The Wolfpack have now reeled off nine consecutive victories to reach the Final Four against Purdue.

I’ve been pulling for them, to be honest, since I covered the last time they got this far.

That was in 1983, when the late Jim Valvano took a group with similar long-shot hopes and led them to an unheralded national title, beating heavily-favored Houston in the championship.

I was assigned to broadcast the four Wolfpack games leading to the Final Four in Albuquerque.

That run still ranks as one of the most exciting string of broadcasts in my career.

This was a team that finished fourth in the eight-team ACC, and given little hope of knocking off powers North Carolina and Virginia.

But they won that rugged conference tournament and faced Pepperdine in their opening NCAA contest in Corvallis, Oregon.

They trailed by double-digits down the stretch, but pulled even and won by two points in the second overtime.

There will still doubters.

In the second round, they were again losing big, this time to  UNLV, coached by the renowned Jerry Tarkanian, only to rally and win by one point.

Believe it or not there were still nay-sayers.

But not Valvano and his confident squad.

N.C.State advanced to the West regionals in Ogden, Utah and whipped Utah to set up the battle for the Final Four against Virginia and their 7-foot 4-inch giant Ralph Sampson.

The Wolfpack beat Virginia by one point to gain the Final Four. They also had to defeat the Cavaliers in the ACC tournament final to earn a spot in March Madness.

And how about the similarities to then and now.

This year’s N.C.State Cinderellas had to survive against Duke in their five-game march to the ACC crown, then beat them again in the South Reginal final.

Now, the Wolfpack tangle with strong Purdue, the Midwest Regional winners, in one of the two national semifinals.

The Boilermakers boast a mammoth 7-foot-4-inch center, Zach Edey, who was the consensus National Player of the Year last season, and likely to repeat this year.

Edey scored a career high 40 points, added 16 rebounds and went to the free-throw line 22 times.

Purdue’s strategy is from a throwback time in basketball. Post-up your virtually unstoppable center close to the basket, get the ball to him and he will score or get fouled. Double-team him and have him find an open man to make the outside shot.

It’s worked for the Boilermakers. They just don’t play the game that way anymore.

The Final Four appearance for Purdue will be their first in 44 years, when their coach was Lee Rose.

But it was Gene Keady, who is known as the symbol of Purdue basketball. Keady led the Boilermakers for 25 years, went to the NCAA Tournament 17 times and advanced to the Regional Semi-Finals, or Elite Eight twice. But Keady, for all his greatness, never reached a Final Four.

Purdue will play N.C. State, who boasts a happy-go-lucky spirit at center, named DJ Burns, who is quick and nimble, and powerful for a 6-9 big man.

But what catches the eye is his constant smile, joy, and personality on the court.

He kind of reminds me of Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs quarterback, who always seems to be enjoying himself.

The fourth team still playing this week is Alabama.

Like N.C. State, the Crimson Tide struggled down the stretch but have turned it on in the tournament.

Their head coach is Nate Oats, who was an assistant under Dan Hurley’s brother Bobby at Buffalo, and knows the Hurley family well.

But knowing the family and beating Connecticut are not the same.

I can’t see how the Tide can stand up to UConn in the semi-final.

The Purdue-N.C State battle should be more interesting, but Edey, and the Big Ten entry should be too much for the Wolfpack.

I try not to predict, but sometimes I fall into the trap.

But how can you go against the N.C. State miracle run?

And how can you pick UConn to lose?

If I have to choose, I’ll say the miracle run comes to an end.

It would be a huge shock if Connecticut doesn’t cut down the nets for the second straight season.