NCAA's Final Four Takes Shape

The NCAA men's Final Four gets set Sunday — and so far, it looks almost like a Big East Final Four. Connecticut and Villanova locked in their spots in the championship round Saturday night, and Louisville gets its chance Sunday.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Forget the holidays. For a lot of basketball fans, this is the most wonderful time of the year. Maybe it's the NCAA basketball tournament's heat of competition, the oft-brutal quest for glory, you know, that thrill-of-victory-agony-of-defeat stuff. Or maybe it's that alliteration. Final Four is just so much fun to say.

NPR's Mike Pesca has been plopped in front of his Panasonic all weekend, and he's with us now. Hey there, Mike.

MIKE PESCA: Hi, and Jacki let me say, even if you're 5'1", you play 5'3", very big on (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: I stuff that Montagne.

PESCA: You do.

LYDEN: We've got three of the Final Four right now, and that third team is a bit of a surprise, isn't it?

PESCA: Yeah. Michigan State earlier today beat Louisville, and it is a surprise in terms of the - that game was supposed to feature the number-one team in the country. Louisville was the top seed coming into the tournament, and Michigan State was respected but scrappy and seen as not as good.

But Michigan State has a great history. They've taken five teams to the Final Four in the last 11 years. Their coach, Tom Izzo, is very underrated. Maybe that comes from playing their games out of Lansing, Michigan. And Michigan State did beat Louisville. They'll be going to the Final Four.

They'll be joining the University of Connecticut and Villanova University there.

LYDEN: You know what I like about March Madness is you get to hear about all these teams you haven't thought about and Cinderella stories, but this year no glass slippers. Why not?

PESCA: There have been relatively few big upsets. Cleveland State did beat Wake Forest, and a lot of people like the tournament for the exact reason that you said. College basketball is somewhat democratic. At least compared to college football, college basketball is living the Athenian ideal, where everyone gets a chance to compete for the championship, as long as they qualify for the tournament.

And a lot of people read that as saying so to be really democratic, you have to have obscure teams and teams from small conferences pulling upsets left and right.

That hasn't happened as much this year, and there are a couple reasons why, and before I get to that, let me just say I disagree with the premise that Cinderella victories are the definition of an exciting tournament.

A few people have posited this, but I look at exciting games as the most important thing, and if I could take you back to a game, it was a first-round game where I was there in Philadelphia. Villanova was playing American University. American was up by 10 at halftime, and if that lead had stood, it would have been one of the biggest upsets of the tournament.

But what Villanova did was they played great defense. They didn't break under pressure. They're in the Final Four now specifically because Cinderella didn't win that game, and they've provided excellent excitement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: I'm not all that into Cinderella, either, but you know, the glass slippers I do like.

PESCA: People like the glass slipper. People like the pumpkin and the coach, but I will say this. One of the reasons there are fewer Cinderellas is that the people seeding the tournament know how to identify good teams.

So 10 years ago, a team like Gonzaga or Sienna would be given a low seed, and their success would be seen as surprising. When those teams had success this year, the tournament already factored that in, seeded them high, so it's less of a shock when those teams won, as they did a few games this year.

LYDEN: Mike, put down that coffee cup and just tell me in a minute, the weekend's last game, you're watching from your own sofa. What do we know about who's going to win? How does it look?

PESCA: Well in this game, this is Oklahoma University versus the University of North Carolina. It's an exciting game because two of the best players in the country are playing in it, Tyler Hansbrough and Blake Griffin. This is the first time that last year's player of the year, who is Hansbrough, is playing this year's player of the year, since a guy named Lew Alcindor did that, and he later became Karim Abdul-Jabbar. Right now the University of North Carolina is winning.

LYDEN: NPR's Mike Pesca. I like playing basketball with you. Thanks a lot.

PESCA: Bye.

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