Charging Toward Men's Final Four

Half of the Final Four in the men's NCAA tournament is set, and four other teams play Sunday. Host Rachel Martin talks to NPR's Mike Pesca about what it took a couple of these teams to get here.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the men's tournament, Syracuse and Wichita State are headed to the Final Four. It is the furthest Wichita State has gone in the tournament in decades. And there are two more games tonight. NPR's Mike Pesca is here with me in person in the studio. Good morning, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello. How are you? Nice to be here.

MARTIN: I'm doing very well. It's nice to have you here live in the flesh. OK. So, you were watching the games last night here in D.C. You watched Syracuse win. How did they do it?

PESCA: They did it with defense. They stymied Marquette, as they have been stymieing opponents all tournament. You know, they've let up fewer points than any team to have made the Final Four since this current format of the tournament was introduced. And the interesting thing about Syracuse is their coach, Jim Boeheim, who's in the Hall of Fame, for decades, he was just seen as a guy who could recruit and can coach and didn't really have a good personality. Everyone got Jim Boeheim wrong. Jim Boeheim is a sarcastic man and can be funny. And I think he's one of these things that people acquire in their late-60s - they just get honesty. So, at the podium, he will say all the right things but when you ask him in the hallway, you know, what has been so good about you, he'll lay a little honesty on you like here:

JIM BOEHEIM: I cannot believe how good our defense has been in this tournament. I mean, I know Montana's not great but they might have - if we kept everybody in, they might have scored 20 points for the whole game. But they're not - nobody's that bad.

(LAUGHTER)

PESCA: Nobody's that bad. What you're supposed to say, oh, what a good opponent, you know, every team that gets here is good. It's like nobody's that bad. And you're also supposed to say, you know, our opponents tonight, which was Marquette, including their point guard, Vander Blue, oh, you know, he's a great player. We were lucky to have stopped him. He did not say that. He said this:

BOEHEIM: They don't have shooters. I just can't imagine that Vander Blue made eight threes out of 10. Did that really happen? It can't. It can't happen, 'cause I'll leave him out there right now with 10 shots he can't make five.

PESCA: He's not exactly helping things with his trash talk. Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: Honest (unintelligible) moment. I love it. So, the other winner was Wichita State. I mean, I can't really get over their name, the Shockers, but tell me something I don't know about the Shockers.

PESCA: Well, you know, the Shockers used to be the Wheat Shockers, and their mascot is this giant anthropomorphized shock of wheat, with a big, angry wheat face and wheat hair. It's pretty good. His name's WuShock.

MARTIN: I did not know that.

PESCA: Yeah. I'll give you some Shocker facts, lay some Shocker facts on you: Carl Hall, who's really their best blocker and rebounder, he had a heart condition. He had to leave basketball. And he pained light bulbs for $12 an hour, said he was happy to have the job. They finally got him on the right medicine so he could play the game.

MARTIN: Oh, my.

PESCA: Cleanthony's brother - sorry, Early - Cleanthony Early is his name, his brother died in upstate New York and he was recruited for good schools. He stayed home for two years. Was the junior college player of the year all that time, wanted to be with his family. Wichita finally went out to get him. And Ron Baker was in a lot of high school musicals.

MARTIN: OK. So, interesting facts. What is it though about their team that got them to the Final Four? I mean, they were a nine seed, which is kind of a big deal.

PESCA: Yeah, and they come from a conference of, you know, maybe the eighth-best conference in the nation. It's because they're good, they're strong, they're tough, they're old. They have a couple of 24-year-olds and a 23-year-old on the team. Their coach is good. He's also, you know, we're going to make a big deal about the Cinderella. Their coach is very well compensated. His base salary is like $1.15 million. He can make up to 600,000 additional dollars if they win the Final Four. So, even though they are a school that's somewhat obscure, they have a lot of money going into the coaching staff, they recruit well. They're untraditional but they're not exactly, you know, upstarts from out of nowhere.

MARTIN: OK. You have a curveball today?

PESCA: I do. You know, it's baseball season - right now, today, it starts.

MARTIN: No.

PESCA: Yes, yes. The Houston Astros play the Texas Rangers. Houston is now in the American League. Houston is an interesting team in that they are so very, very bad. They've come off losing seasons where they lost 106 and 107 games. Their payroll's $25 million. A-Rod gets paid $30 million. So, they don't pay their whole team as much as this one guy.

MARTIN: No.

PESCA: That's true. Their best player gets paid $3 million. On a team like the Angels, now in their division, he'd be the 14th best player. So, they're pretty much resigned to be this horrible team. They could set some sort of record for most losses three years in the row. As I said, they're in the American League. They moved from a pretty easy division to a harder division, they got worse, they pay their players less. We could - I'll just lay this one Sports Illustrated preview fact - they do a best-case scenario for every team. I've never seen this. The Astros's best-case scenario was they still lose 100 games.

MARTIN: OK. Astros fans, you can direct all of your mail...

PESCA: Oh, you know it. They know it.

MARTIN: ...to Mike Pesca's Twitter handle, which is PescaMI. You can find me @RachelNPR. NPR's Mike Pesca in the studio. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: A pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And you are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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