Why College Basketball So Celebrates The Semifinalists

The NCAA men's basketball tournament is down to the Final Four. Louisville will play Wichita State and Syracuse faces Michigan. Why does college basketball celebrate the semifinalist teams almost as much as the finalists?

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The NCAA men's basketball tournament resumes tomorrow. Louisville plays Wichita State and Syracuse faces Michigan. On the women's side, it's Louisville again. They're playing California. Notre Dame is playing Connecticut. These quartets of teams, of course, are known as the Final Four, and this stage in the tournament is a resume booster for teams and coaches. NPR's Mike Pesca ponders the question of why college basketball, unique among major team sports, celebrates the semi finalists.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Here is Michigan Coach John Beilein, at his most anodyne.

COACH JOHN BEILEIN: It would be very obvious that the University of Michigan is so proud to be back in the Final Four.

PESCA: Yes, it's obvious. Teams hang banners in their gyms bragging of Final Four appearances. A coach who reaches the Final Four is in an obvious position to get a raise or a better job, or at least get some sympathy when he's fired, as was the case last week with the erstwhile coach of UCLA.

STEVE GIETSCHIER: You know, Ben Howalnd, he's fired and I think they said he made three Final Fours, and they still fired him.

PESCA: That's Steve Gietschier, a sports historian at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. He points out that when the NCAA started in 1939, eight teams played. The Final Four wasn't anything special to be remarked upon. But by the early 1970's, mentions of the Final Four as a thing, a destination, became more common and in 1978 the NCAA trademarked the phrase.

But Steve Gietschier says the idea of Final Four exceptionalism really took off thanks to the branding efforts of CBS sports in the 1980's.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: At Indiana, Bobby Knight is putting his best foot forward while Navy center David Robinson is anchoring the fleet. Fasten your seatbelts. We're heading out on the road to the Final Four.

PESCA: That was from 1987. By then fans had simply accepted the idea that the Final Four was the accomplishment, other than a championship itself. That's odd in the specific case of Syracuse's Jim Boehim, who before this year made three Final Fours. But he also made three finals. Shouldn't that resume item more celebrated?

So last week, right after he beat Marquette, I asked him.

COACH JIM BOEHIM: I had thought about that a couple of times, that we have been able to get to the finals when we're there. When you make the Final Four, it's obviously, right now, it's a great reason to be happy, but if you don't win you'll be more unhappy than you would be if you lost today.

PESCA: In other words, Final Fours feel great - until you lose. Also, Final Four's might seem more important than championship games, because there is a week of buildup to the Final Four; there is only a day of buildup between the semis and the finals. Plus, the Final Four is an event. All the teams are in one place and they're collectively feted. Georgetown coach John Thompson has made three NCAA final games, but we always credit him with making three Final Fours. He offered this analysis.

COACH JOHN THOMPSON: There's only one team that feels any good in the end, and that's the team that wins it all. I've been to the Final Two, three times and felt like (BLEEP) at the end of not winning. So, I mean, that's the way you feel.

PESCA: Indeed, the best explanation of celebrating the Final Four is that there are 30 teams in the NHL, NBA, and baseball. There are more than 10 times that many teams in Division One basketball. So the four NCAA finalists represent the top 1.2 percent of all teams, whereas the champion of the pro leagues represent merely the top 3.3 percent. The Final Four is a glass, quarter-full, type message.

Much more uplifting that the John Thompson idea - can you imagine the branding - Division One NCAA basketball where 339 teams feel like (bleep). Mike Pesca, NPR News.

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