Final Four storylines: Two scandals, one big star

This year’s Final Four will be scandal versus smile.
Buddy Hield has led Oklahoma to the Final Four, where the Sooners will play Villanova on Saturday.
Buddy Hield has led Oklahoma to the Final Four, where the Sooners will play Villanova on Saturday.

This year’s Final Four will be scandal versus smile.

On one side of the bracket, two schools have put aside NCAA sanctions, or the threat of them, to march to Houston. On the other side, a charismatic star has carried his team, and a program has avenged a history of tournament disappointment.

This was not the unconventional Final Four some foresaw after a season of unusual parity. In Villanova, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Syracuse, there are three traditional powers plus a rich program from the Big 12 Conference. They come with the trappings of blueblood programs: Legendary coaches, big recruits and, for some, NCAA investigations.

North Carolina has been soldiering on in the face of looming sanctions for almost five years. Syracuse brushed off sanctions and a mediocre regular season to reach the Final Four.

Those two Atlantic Coast Conference teams will meet in Houston. One will play for the national championship. The Pac-12, meanwhile, will not. The conference was shut out of the Final Four again this season, and hasn’t sent a team there since UCLA in 2008.

After a confusing, convulsing mess of an opening weekend, it seemed possible the lower seeds could take over. But reports of the top seeds’ demise turned out to be greatly exaggerated. All four No. 1 seeds reached regional finals.

Then, one by one, they went down. On Saturday, Oregon was crushed under a masterful performance by Oklahoma’s star, Buddy Hield. Kansas couldn’t wrestle the victory away from Villanova.

On Sunday, Virginia fumbled away a 16-point second-half lead against Syracuse. Only North Carolina survived.

The Tar Heels, who breezed past Florida Gulf Coast, Prov­idence and Indiana before subduing Notre Dame on Sunday, may have a brief NCAA tournament window.

For almost five years, an academic scandal, spanning several sports and ranging from 1993 to 2011, has hung over the program like a dark cloud. The NCAA may finally be ready to conclude its investigation.

NCAA President Mark Emmert told USA Today that “sometime in the relatively near future, we’ll move toward a resolution.”

Syracuse, meanwhile, is still dealing with its own NCAA troubles. A year ago, the organization investigated Syracuse for alleged improprieties ranging from academic misconduct to impermissible benefits, booster activity and drug-test violations.

In February 2015, Syracuse decided to act. It self-imposed a postseason ban. Some observers found the timing suspect. Syracuse was in the middle of a down season, and might have missed the NCAA tournament anyway.

In March, on top of Syracuse’s own penalties, the NCAA suspended coach Jim Boeheim for nine ACC games, took away 12 scholarships and vacated 108 wins.

In a twist, Syracuse may have sneaked into the NCAA tournament field this season in part because the selection committee took Boeheim’s suspension into consideration. The Orange struggled in his absence.

“I’ve said from day one, we treat player availability and coach availability the same,” said the committee’s chairman, Joe Castiglione.

The Orange were seeded 10th, an underdog for a change. Only one of every 250 brackets filled out on picked Syracuse to make the Final Four.

But Syracuse didn’t have to play a seed higher than No. 7 before Sunday’s regional final. Against the No. 1 seed — Virginia — Syracuse looked overmatched. It trailed by 16 points early in the second half, by 15 with under 10 minutes to play. But the Orange stormed Virginia with a 25-4 run to win, 68-62.

Syracuse is just the fourth double-digit seed to reach the Final Four.

“I’ve never been prouder in all my 40 years of a basketball team than I am of this one,” Boeheim said.

On the other side of the bracket, Oklahoma’s Hield has drawn comparisons to reigning NBA most valuable player Stephen Curry. His buoyant personality, and his rise out of childhood poverty in the Bahamas, have made him this tournament’s star.

Hield was nearly unstoppable against Oregon on Saturday. He scored 37 points and made eight of 13 three-point attempts. Curry, while at Davidson, was rarely more impressive. His NCAA tournament high was 40 points.

“I was trying to go for 40,” Hield said.

The Sooners’ opponent, Villanova, took down the No. 1 overall seed, Kansas, in a game the Wildcats proudly said they made “ugly.”

Villanova had gained a reputation for collapse. Two seasons ago, as a No. 2 seed, it lost in the second round. It did so again last season as a No. 1 seed. The Wildcats hadn’t won multiple games in the tournament since 2009.

Now it will have a rematch with Oklahoma. The Sooners won a meeting earlier this season in a 78-55 rout.

“The first time we played them, we had a lot of young guys coming in that didn’t know what we were completely about yet,” Villanova forward Daniel Ochefu said. He added, with remorse, “The game was not ugly at all.”

Villanova likes ugly. But a national championship banner? That might not look so bad at all.

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