What a long, strange trip


There's a coach they call "Huggy Bear" and a team better known for its fieldhouse than its players. There's a Final Four regular that hardly anyone figured would get this far and, bringing a wee bit of normalcy back to the party, there is Duke.

One of the most unpredictable NCAA Tournaments in recent history served up a bit of the familiar for the Final Four -- and a good dose of something completely different.

Coached by Bob "Huggy Bear" Huggins, West Virginia will make its first appearance since 1959, back when Jerry West played guard. Its opponent Saturday will be Duke, the only No. 1 seed to make it to Indianapolis.

The other game features Butler against Michigan State in a meeting of two No. 5 seeds -- the first time that has happened.

Butler, enrollment 4,500, plays in the gym where they filmed the basketball classic "Hoosiers" and is making its first Final Four appearance. Michigan State is making its sixth and perhaps most unexpected trip in the past 12 years.

"I talked to them (Sunday) morning about separating themselves," said Spartans coach Tom Izzo, at the helm for all those Final Four trips. "We've gone through a lot of things this year, not as bad as sometimes portrayed, and yet not as smooth as some years that we've had."

The Spartans (28-8) defeated Tennessee 70-69 on Sunday to win the Midwest Regional despite the loss of one of their top players, Kalin Lucas, who tore his Achilles tendon last week.

They still have the core of the team that made the national final last year in an inspiring run that ended close to home, in Detroit, with a blowout loss to North Carolina. The Tar Heels didn't make the tournament this year.

Raymar Morgan, Durrell Summers and Korie Lucious helped picked up the slack. Michigan State also benefited from being in the most topsy-turvy region in a tournament that long will be remembered.

No. 1 seed Kansas, the odds-on favorite to win the title when the brackets came out, went out the first weekend, upset by No. 9 Northern Iowa.

Tennessee took out No. 2 Ohio State, and No. 3 Georgetown was gone only a few hours into the tournament, upset by No. 14 Ohio.

The Spartans only had to beat one team seeded higher, and that was No. 4 Maryland on a buzzer-beating 3-point shot by Lucious in the round-of-32 -- the kind of shot that could make a team wonder if there might be something special going on.

Speaking of destiny ... Butler (32-4) will bring a 24-game winning streak to Lucas Oil Stadium -- only about a 10-minute drive from campus.

The Bulldogs are the first team since UCLA in 1972 to play a Final Four in their hometown -- one of about a dozen intriguing story lines for America's favorite little guy.

They play and practice in Hinkle Fieldhouse, the gym where scenes from the ultimate hoops underdog story was filmed.

In "Hoosiers," a small Indiana high school makes an inspiring run to the state title. In real life, Butler isn't quite that kind of underdog, but the coach, Brad Stevens, said there's no way to play for his program without getting the gist.

"Not a week goes by where somebody who hasn't seen the fieldhouse doesn't walk into the fieldhouse and at least mouth the word, 'Hickory,' " Stevens said, conjuring the name of the movie's fictional high school.

Butler-Michigan State is a matchup of No. 5 seeds, a turn of fortune that's certain to reintroduce the idea of reseeding the tournament once it reaches the Final Four.

The other game pits No. 2 West Virginia against No. 1 Duke. Led by Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer, the Blue Devils defeated Baylor 78-71 on Sunday to win the South Regional and earn the final spot in Indy.

They are the new, odds-on favorite to win it all, listed at 3-2 in the line that came out Sunday night. West Virginia is next at 9-5 and the Spartans and Bulldogs are both 3-1.

This is the first time since 2004 that only one No. 1 has made it to the Final Four. (None made it in 2006, the year No. 11 George Mason captured America's imagination.)

The year 2004 was also the last time Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski made it. This will be the Duke coach's 11th time in the Final Four; the last trip resulted in a semifinal loss to Connecticut.

"It's not about the moments that I've been in, it's the moment that your players put you in right now," Krzyzewski said. "I'm really happy for this group. You get a chance to win a regional championship game and go to the Final Four, it's something that will be a part of your life forever."

Returning after a much longer time away is Huggins, who made it in 1992 when he coached Cincinnati.

Since then, Huggins has been on a coaching odyssey that has included trouble with the NCAA, a heart attack and a one-year stop at Kansas State before he returned to his alma mater in Morgantown.

Through it all, there has been a lot of winning.

 

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