Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Each week, RTC contributor JL Weill (@AgonicaBoss| Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the random, whacked-out, weirdo 2000 NCAA Final Four.
One Final Four team shouldn’t even be in the tournament. Another surprise team plays a grind-it-out style with no star power. A third team is a batch of mostly young kids who needed a buzzer beater to even get out of the first round. The last team at the Final Four – call it the favorite — is powered by a short point guard and a slasher who seems to be getting better by the game and a bunch of spare parts.
2011? Nope. Try 11 years earlier, when a bunch of random happened to college basketball.
It was a watershed moment for the sport. Or so we thought, anyway. Everything had changed, forever. It was the era of parity, the New World Order for basketball. There would be no kings anymore. Fear the Tulsas and the Wisconsins and the Iowa States from here on out. But other than that wacky March and early April of 2000, for the most part the college basketball world has actually been a pretty normal place ever since. Yes, there have been a few Final Four interlopers in the interim: George Mason, Indiana, Georgia Tech. But mostly it’s been a whole bunch of Duke and Florida and North Carolina and, well, Duke. But forgive yourselves if you weren’t able to accurately predict the future way back then. After all, this was right after all the world’s computers should have melted down, wreaking untold havoc on all humanity, wasn’t it?
Havoc was exactly what it looked like, though, in bracket pools everywhere in the Spring of 2000, thanks to a motley crew assembled in Indianapolis for the 2000 NCAA Final Four that was about as unpredictable as they come. Of the quartet, only Michigan State was “supposed” to be there, the only No. 1 (or 2 or 3 or even 4, for that matter) seed to even make it past the Sweet 16. The combined seeds of the four teams to reach the RCA Dome came to an astounding 22, far surpassing the total for any other single Final Four. Well, until 2011, that is.
The Spartans were familiar with the Final Four, having made the tournament’s last weekend the season before only to lose to Duke. After that game, seniors-to-be Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson determined they would not be denied a second time. Of course, that’s always easier to say than it is to do. Michigan State trailed in the second half of three of its tournament games before reaching the semifinals. But each time the Spartans’ blend of experience, talent and football toughness – intentionally bred by their football-loving coach Tom Izzo – proved enough to overcome both deficit and, eventually, the opponent.
This was, in fact, the team that defined Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State. After so many Final Four appearances and so many wins, fans and pundits have come to expect Izzo’s teams to play that Izzo style of gritty bruiser ballet. But while the 1999 Spartans did leap past Kentucky and into the Final Four, it was this group in 2000 that established the base line for all the Michigan State units that followed.
But even if Michigan State was the prohibitive favorite on Final Four weekend, the underdog has upset the status quo enough times that there was no reason to take for granted the Big Ten champions would waltz to the crown. First standing in their way was a familiar Big Ten foe in an unfamiliar place.
Today, Wisconsin is a well-known basketball school. Under coach Bo Ryan, the Badgers have competed in 10 straight NCAA tournaments and finished in the top half of the Big Ten each of those seasons. But it wasn’t always this way. It took a decidedly unconventional coach to lay the groundwork for the annual Big Ten contender we see now. Before Dick Bennett took over the reins of the Badger basketball program in 1995, it had been to one NCAA tournament since 1947. One. The markedly unflashy Bennett came to Madison, Wisc., with a record of consistent, slow-building success at Wisconsin-Green Bay. Taking over a program where basketball mostly seemed like what happened between hockey season and spring football practice,. Bennett started from scratch and built a team that might not always look pretty but whose toughness and spine would please any hockey or football fan. And most importantly, the Badgers began to win.