The road to the Final Four, which will be staged in Houston, has begun with the newfangled First Four, staged in Dayton. In between much will happen, only some of it foreseeable by human minds. As the NCAA tournament prepares to begin in earnest, we offer a four-pack of foursomes for your perusal.
Lon Kruger, UNLV: He’s the world’s nicest guy, so what did he do to deserve this? The former head Atlanta Hawk — remember his ill-fated playoff guarantee? — will face one of his former schools (Illinois) in Round 1. Should the Runnin’ Rebels advance, Kruger would surely face the man who succeeded him at Illinois (Bill Self, now of Kansas) in Round 2. And looking way ahead, two other former Kruger employers (Florida and Kansas State) sit in his half of the bracket.
Mark Fox, Georgia: His Bulldogs will meet Washington, which is where Fox began his coaching career. He worked two seasons for Lynn Nance, who lasted only four. Further oddity: Fox has been identified as a possible target for North Carolina State’s coaching job. The Wolfpack athletic director is Debbie Yow, who was once married to Lynn Nance.
Josh Pastner, Memphis: He was an Arizona walk-on when the Wildcats won the 1997 NCAA title. Graduating in 2 1/2 years, he rose from office go-fer to full-blooded assistant coach but left Tucson in the midst of that uneasy period that spanned Lute Olson’s medical leave of absence and Kevin O’Neill’s stormy stint as coach-in-waiting. Pastner, who’s 33, now coaches Memphis. They meet Arizona in Round 1.
Lorenzo Romar, Washington: He was an assistant under Jim Harrick when UCLA won the 1995 national championship. (The other Bruin assistants were Mark Gottfried, formerly of Alabama, and Steve Lavin, currently of St. John’s.) Romar’s Huskies play Georgia, which Harrick led to the NCAA tournament in 2001 and 2002 but left in rubble after the Tony Cole allegations of 2003.
Kansas Jayhawks: They won the 2008 tournament after a 20-year drought of near-misses (Final Four losses to Duke, North Carolina, Maryland and Syracuse) and early flops (ousters at the hands of UCLA, UTEP, Virginia, Arizona, Rhode Island, Bucknell and Bradley). Last year they were supposed to win again but lost in Round 2 to Northern Iowa. This year Kansas is widely considered the second-best team in the field, which means … well, pretty much nothing.
Rick Byrd: He coaches Belmont, which is based in Nashville. His Bruins nearly upset Duke in Round 1 of the NCAA tournament. (That game prompted this immortal bit of dialogue between Washington Post writers covering the game. First writer: “Who’s the best player in Belmont history?” Second writer: “Secretariat?”) This time Belmont is matched against No. 4 seed Wisconsin in the upset everybody is picking.
Marquette Golden Eagles: They were the Warriors when they won the 1977 NCAA title in the old Omni and Al McGuire wept. But they’re the Eagles now, and they’re coached by Buzz Williams, and they’ve got a real chance at felling sixth-seeded Xavier in Round 1. Then again, Marquette didn’t look so mighty in its last game — a 25-point Big East tournament loss to the …
Louisville Cardinals: Rick Pitino has won an NCAA title and taken three different schools to the Final Four, but this might well have been his greatest coaching job. Picked to finish eighth in the Big East, Louisville tied for third and went 25-9 despite losing forward Rakeem Buckles to a knee injury in late February. And now those folks who aren’t picking Kansas to win the Southwest Regional are picking the Cardinals.
Jimmer Fredette, BYU: He’s a point guard and the nation’s leading scorer, and he’s great. (Witness his 52 points against New Mexico in the Mountain West tournament.) But he’s now a one-man crew. Without Brandon Davies, suspended due to an honor code violation, Fredette has been firing at an astonishing rate. He took 83 shots in three games in his conference tournament, making 39.
Nolan Smith, Duke: He was the third-best player on Duke’s championship team of last season, but he became the ACC player of the year while filling a position — point guard — he wasn’t supposed to fill. (Freshman Kyrie Irving was lost to a toe injury and still hasn’t returned.) If Duke wins it again, Nolan will finish with one more national title than managed by his late dad Derek, who hailed from Hogansville, Ga., and who was a starting forward on Louisville’s 1980 NCAA titlist.
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State: The Buckeyes lost last season’s national player of the year, guard Evan Turner, to the NBA draft. They’ve been better without him. The freshman Sullinger, who might be the first player drafted this summer, has lent Ohio State the inside power last season’s all-perimeter team lacked.
Kenneth Faried, Morehead State: Never heard of him? Pay attention to the Louisville-Morhead matchup. (Like Louisville, Morehead is based in Kentucky.) Faried is a 6-foot-10 post player who leads the nation in rebounding and who could become a lottery pick.
1. Belmont and Byrd will indeed take down Wisconsin.
2. Charles Barkley will seem out of his element as a college basketball commentator.
3. Wofford will upset Jimmer and BYU.
4. Ohio State and Sullinger will win it all.
PROMOTIONAL NOTE: If you haven’t yet entered Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco — winner gets a Final Four hoodie and a 32GB iPAD — please do so by clicking here. You have until 11:40 a.m. Thursday to enter.
ANOTHER PROMOTIONAL NOTE: Coming tomorrow, we’ll conduct the annual live chat off the first afternoon of NCAA play, complete with the usual photo of my propped-up feet. Join me around noon Thursday, won’t you? My feet and I thank you in advance.
By Mark Bradley