Year of the Tournament nears conclusion

John Gilbert

You could make the case that 2017 is the Year of the Tournament, and who could argue?  We have been blessed with the biggest tournaments of our year all being supremely exciting from start to finish, and we’re not finished yet!
Of course, the tournament most of the country is engulfed by is the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and if you’ve taken the time to watch many, or any, of the games, you’d have to agree. We have boiled down the hundreds of competing teams to a Final Four — an official title patented by the NCAA so that no other tournament can use the term.

That tournament pushes the NCAA men’s hockey tournament off for another week, even though THAT is the tournament that most Northern Minnesotans most closely identify with. That, too, will be exciting right down to the wire, if the regionals are any indication.
We also had a mostly exciting state high school tournament run, with the boys hockey being out of this world, and granting us two Northern champions in Grand Rapids and Hermantown. The basketball tournament also had its share of exciting, close battles, even though some of the games turned into blowouts — always a risk when you have so many classes.

Of course, another huge tournament is still to come, with the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs looming a few weeks away, while we in Minnesota wait anxiously to see if the Wild can recapture the flair that led them through the whole season, until March, when everything suddenly looked dismally familiar. We also have the NBA playoffs, but apparently Minnesota isn’t allowed to participate.

First though, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament comes up this weekend in Glendale, Ariz., and it is of particular interest because the same old teams didn’t all make it. North Carolina made it, for the 19th time, after a spectacular finish to topple Kentucky in one of the most captivating Region finals.

That puts North Carolina into the role of Final Four favorite, as the Tar Hellos take on upstart Oregon. Now, the Ducks, whose colorful green or yellow jerseys now have emblazoned “Fighting” above “Ducks,” reached the first-ever NCAA basketball tournament in 1939, and won it. Since then, the Ducks hadn’t ever been back, until this year. They made the Final Four with a quite amazing display of size, skill and moxie to take out heavily favored Kansas, in Kansas City.

The other semifinal has South Carolina, the team that knocked out Duke, taking on Gonzaga, a colorful little team from Spokane, Wash. Neither of these two teams has ever — ever — made it to the Final Four. 
That means the four finalists have combined for 20 Final Four appearances, 19 of them by North Carolina! Which also means I’ve got to pull for Oregon to knock off the heavily favored Tar Heels in Saturday’s semifinals. And then, just because I love great stories in sports, I’m pulling for Gonzaga to beat South Carolina.

Good friends and knowledgable basketball guys are picking North Carolina against South Carolina in the final, with North Carolina winning. How boring. Even if they are the best.
It was a bizarre weekend at the Gilbert Compound, because I had my West Region NCAA hockey credentials all ordered and reserved for me in Fargo, and my plan was to finish my 9-11 a.m. talk-radio show on KDAL (610 am and 103.9 fm), then climb into a new car test driver and head across the state for Fargo. Duluth to Fargo is about 4.5 hours, so I had no chance of getting there in time for the first game, starting at 2, but I could be well in place for the UMD-Ohio State game at 5.

It hit me then, however, that running to Fargo and back is not the same as driving to the Twin Cities and back for a college, high school or Wild game. I recalled some of my favorite puck-watching days have come when there was no regional within driving distance, so I’d set up at home and grab the clicker — switching rapidly to catch the well-staggered games, which ESPN spaced out well enough so you could watch all or at least some of every game.

That was my choice. Starting with North Dakota-BU at 2 p.m., I could switch over and see some of Harvard-Providence, starting at 3, and tune in for Air Force-Western Michigan at 6:30. 
You may have caught an over-the-top, emotional editorial in the Duluth News Tribune, whining that the NCAA and its arrogant coaches had voted to not allow regionals at college sites, which means UMD can never be host to a regional, even though AMSOIL Arena is the perfect location. I, of course, feel that coaches voting in association unity are far from arrogant for wanting to avoid home-ice edges to top teams, so I offered a reasonable alternative: Allow regionals at campus sites, but do not allow teams to play at their home regional! 

Whatever, the two sites in question by the editorial were the unfair locations of Fargo for North Dakota, and Providence for Providence. By Friday night, BU had beaten North Dakota and Harvard had knocked off Providence. So much for home-ice advantages.
On Saturday, it got crazier. In the Northeast Regional at Manchester, N.H., Mass-Lowell played Cornell at 11 a.m. and the Minnesota-Notre Dame game followed at 2:30. Top-ranked Denver played Michigan Tech at noon in the Midwest Regional at Cincinnati, followed by Penn State and Union at 3:30.  Later, in the evening, we had UMD and BU meeting in a battle of overtime survivors, and Air Force, which upset Western Michigan 5-4, taking on a potent Harvard outfit.

By Sunday, the smoke was clearing. UMD had outlasted BU in an OT thriller to win the West, while Harvard held off Air Force 3-2 to win the East. Denver, after leading 5-0 and beating Michigan Tech 5-2, overran a Penn State team that was the surprise of the tournament by scoring the last seven goals in a 10-3 rout of favored Union, to win the Midwest. Notre Dame, which came from a 2-0 deficit to knock out Minnesota 3-2, beat a Mass-Lowell outfit that had looked dominant in beating Cornell 5-0, but couldn’t solve Notre Dame in the Northeast final.

My anticipation for the two-week wait before UMD plays Harvard and Denver takes on Notre Dame in Chicago was already easing off when I happened to catch a couple basketball games.
Two of them in particular were standouts. In one, Oregon had to face an awesome Kansas team in Kansas City — speaking of home-field advantages — but the Ducks upset the Jayhawks and gained a Final Four spot with a large and athletic, and very green, shot-blocking and shot-making outfit. Oregon went cold after building a big lead, blew most of the lead, then pulled away to hammer Kansas substantially.  

The best finish, however, went to North Carolina and Kentucky, in a game  in Memphis that didn’t even have that much back-and-forth action. Kentucky led 64-59 with 5 minutes remaining, then rose up to score 12 straight points and take the lead. I found myself pulling for both teams! North Carolina got up by seven with less than a minute to play, but the Wildcats came through with a pair of 3s to cut the deficit to 71-70, but Justin Jackson made a layup to increase Carolina’s edge to 73-70.

As the final half-minute ticked away, Kentucky brought the ball down and Kentucky star Malik Monk went up with defenders all over him, but he drilled the 3, and with 7 seconds left, Kentucky had ad 73-all tie. What impressed me most was the decisiveness of Monk’s shot, and also that North Carolina did not take a time out. Theo Pinson hustled down the floor, and drove to about the free throw line before he realized he had no shot, with time running out, he flipped the ball back to a big guy named Luke Maye, a reserve who had come off the bench. Maye didn’t hesitate, but fired away, from just inside the 3-point arc. Swish! The ball went through with 0.3 seconds left, and North Carolina won the game 75-73.

It doesn’t get any better than that, and a thrilling finish allows even the most ardent basketball fans to justify watching a lot of less-exciting, sloppy games. Here’s hoping there are more thrills Saturday, in the semifinals, and Monday, in the final.