A Cinderella, Champion, Bomber and Big Man walk into a Stadium … no joke

GLENDALE – The curious road to the Final Four that ends here at State Farm Stadium has a motley crew of teams, save for Connecticut, the defending champ.

Tells you it takes luck, good health, good timing and a good backcourt. And, oh, a 7-foot-4 center that has become college basketball’s center piece for the second year.

It just does.

  • UConn, the defending champion, wants to be more like the “attacking champion.”
  • Purdue wants to exorcise the demons of poor tournaments past and, well, already has given it’s here at the Final Four for the first time since 1980.
  • Alabama, a football school, has now gained credence on the basketball court behind a group of sometimes-sharp-shooting marksmen from beyond the arc. Can a team win it all doing it that way? (Don’t see Arizona as your evidence).
  • And then there’s North Carolina State, an 11-seed and the longshot of the bunch which hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1983 (nostalgia weekend).
Fans headed to State Farm Stadium for Final Four.

But don’t call NC State the Cinderella of the bunch. Or just don’t do it around the Wolfpack. They believe, so you should believe that there’s still magic somewhere there. They’ve won nine consecutive games – in win-or-go home situations – after losing their previous four.

“We don’t,” NC State coach Kevin Keatts said, of being the Cinderella “… if that’s what it takes, we’ll be okay. I’ll say this: Round of 16 we were possibly ranked the 16th team. Round of Eight, we’re the eight team. Final Four, were’ the four team. It’s worked out for us.

“We’re take whatever name that we get. We believe. Obviously, we came here to have the opportunity to cut the nets down, not as a Cinderella. We’ll take whatever they give us.”

Purdue, first-round failures last year, have proved otherwise here, finally getting through the muck of all the tournament talk behind player of the Zack Edey, the two-time college player of the year.

Purdue players signing autographs

“That dude is huge,” NC State’s DJ Burns, the guy who will be guarding him.

Still, it’s a huge moment on a huge stage for a team that has lost in the first round in two the last three years. The difference this year?

“Obviously playing better at key times,” Painter said, when asked what the difference of has been making it here. “A lot comes to matchups. For us, our losses have been to more of the low-to-mid-major teams. That’s something you take a hard look at.

“At the end of every year, you take inventory of yourself, your staff, your player, your styles … what works, what doesn’t work.”

He found what worked – at least this year. As did Alabama, a team that lives and dies with the 3. You remember them, right? The Crimson Tide lost to Arizona – yes, I’m reminding you – after shooting a miserable 8 for 40 in December.

Alabama AD Greg Byrne (Center red)

Overall, it hit 37.1 percent from beyond the arc. In getting here, it shot 44 percent in its Elite Eight game vs. Clemson, 42 percent vs. North Carolina 26 percent vs. Grand Canyon and 56 percent vs. College of Charleston.

Save for one game, yikes!

“That’s what we do, but we’re also very capable of putting rim pressure on the bigs,” Alabama star Mark Sears said. “Making lobs and stuff like that. But with the guard play we have, we’re really known for getting it in the paint, making the defense collapse and kicking it out to stripe threes.”

How many they will shoot is anyone’s guess.

“It all depends on how the defense wants to guard us,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “I don’t really care if we 50 in a game if that’s how they want to guard us.

“If they want to take the paint away, we’ll take threes. If they want to take 3s away, we’ll take the paint. UConn presents a challenging because they have (Donovan) Clingan to run the paint. They’re going to run the 3-point line. Most games there’s a pretty good mix of threes and paint shots. (But) there’s no max … Can’t make 20 if you’re not taking 40, 50 of ’em. Let ’em fly.”

And against UConn, a team that’s on a major run – again – as it looks to become the first college champion to repeat in 17 seasons (Florida). It’s reeled of 11 consecutive wins and has won a school-record 35 games, going 35-3.

To get here, it’s won by 39 (Stetson), 17 (Northwestern), San Diego State (30) and Illinois (25).

Attack, attack, attack, something that was very apparent in its win over Illinois last week with its 30-0 run.

They are easily the odds-on favorite and yet …

“I think coming into the year, I don’t think people on the outside expected us to play this well,” head coach Danny Hurley said. “I don’t know if you stuck a lie detector on me if I thought we’d play this well, especially in a tournament that’s so hard. It’s so hard to advance in this tournament and get to a Final Four.

“Look at the biggest brands, the best programs historically have a hard time getting to a Final Four in recent history. I get it. We’ve been brilliant. We’ve played great. The thing about this tournament, though, is none of that matters on Saturday. We are going to have this two-hour game versus Alabama. If we’re not on point, we won’t play on Monday.”

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