INDIANAPOLIS — Before they begin the seventh Final Four in Indianapolis, here’s a story about the first one. Thirty-five years ago. Iowa vs. Louisville in a semifinal.
Iowa star Ronnie Lester scores 10 of the first 12 Hawkeye points, but aggravates an old knee injury and is taken to the locker room. A couple of reporters think it’d be interesting to go see what’s up with Lester.
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Outside the locker room, the crowd is under 17,000, because Market Square Arena is a cozy laid-back sort of place. Indianapolis has no need for anything larger. It’s not like the city has an NFL team or anything. The court is usually used by the Pacers, but of course, there is no such thing as a 3-point line in college basketball. Or a shot clock.
Elsewhere, Duke has named a new coach. His name is Mike Krzyzewski. There is an assistant at Northern Michigan, Tom Izzo, and an assistant at Wisconsin, Bo Ryan. Clarion is getting a transfer player from UNC Wilmington. His name is John Calipari.
Flash forward to this very Saturday, April of 2015. Things have changed.
The crowd will approach 70,000 in massive Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL’s Colts. Market Square Arena is now a parking lot, soon to be an apartment/office complex. Security is up to 21st-century standards. Should any media outsider get the idea of just walking into a team’s locker room the next few days, a battalion of security will stand in the way.
Krzyzewski, Izzo, Ryan, Calipari — all are chasing a championship here this weekend. The first three men are in their 60s, Calipari is 56. “This is an old crew,’’ Calipari said Friday, “if I’m the youngest of the four.’’
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“You can go to some places and it’s like, ‘Oh, is the Final Four here?’ In Indianapolis, everybody knows the Final Four is there.”
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Indianapolis has now hosted so may Final Fours, it has gone through three facilities, from Market Square to the Hoosier/RCA Dome to Lucas Oil. And it has become a star as Final Four host. “As good as it gets,” Krzyzewski said this week.
One reason is everything is close to each other. There will be mall shoppers this weekend who walk more than patrons at the Final Four, going from hotel to Fan Fest to arena. All four teams, staying downtown, can stroll to the games, if they choose.
The city center is alive with Michigan State green and Wisconsin red and two shades of Kentucky and Duke blue. There is a 17-story-tall bracket on the side of one of the hotels. “You can go to some places and it’s like, ‘Oh, is the Final Four here?’ ” Roy Williams said. “In Indianapolis, everybody knows the Final Four is there.”
Nineteen different schools have played in an Indianapolis Final Four. All four of this year’s teams have already been here at least once. Two of them have won a championship here.
Krzyzewski won two of his four national titles here. If he gets a third, they might change the name of the city to North Krzyzewskiville. Izzo has been in two Final Fours here, winning one of them.
Denny Crum won his first national championship here, in that 1980 Final Four. So did Billy Donovan. Lute Olson won his only title. This is where Duke upset UNLV, where Rick Pitino coached his last game for Kentucky and where Dean Smith coached the last game of his life.
This is where George Mason showed up as Cinderella. And where Butler once competed in a Final Four only six miles from campus, so close that several of the Bulldogs attended class in the morning and played Duke for the national championship game at night. When Butler narrowly lost 61-59, coach Brad Stevens drove home and — unable to sleep — watched the tape again at 4 a.m. from his couch.
That was 2010. Five years later, Krzyzewski has been wearing the championship ring on his right hand for the past month, “just as a reminder to me and our team of our ultimate goal.”
So another Indianapolis Final Four begins, in some ways the same as 1980, and in some ways very, very different. Nobody talked about the vast open spaces affecting the shooting in 1980. They do now, though as Izzo said, “We played on an aircraft carrier where the background was the sea. That won’t bother our guys.’’
In the end, the games are what get remembered, and between a heavyweight coaching quartet and four glued-together teams and the scent of history, the next three days are highly promising.
“For years, we’ve gotten to be like the pros, where it’s a matchup of individuals,’’ Krzyzewski said. “This year it’s a renewal of what college basketball should be. It’s about teams.’’
Izzo added that “I don’t see a lot of big egos in this tournament, probably the fewest I’ve seen in a lot of years.’’
Saturday will see Izzo trying to reverse his fortune against Krzyzewski, a pairing in which Izzo is 1-8. To do better is a goal that he admitted “we still haven’t conquered, but we’re working on it, I promise you that.’’
Saturday will see only the third time in history, and first in nearly 50 years, that two teams — Kentucky and Wisconsin — have played one another in the semifinals in consecutive years.
Saturday will see Calipari’s Kentucky machine getting one game closer to joining the elite of the elite with a perfect season. Or not.
“The other three coaches don’t want him to go undefeated,’’ Krzyzewski said. “We don’t want to be part of that history.’’
If Wisconsin is into omens, this is the right place, and Saturday is the right day.
The last time an unbeaten team got this far, UNLV in 1991, the Final Four was in Indianapolis. Just like for Kentucky. The Rebels were paired on Saturday against a team they had beaten the year before in the Final Four. Just like Kentucky.
UNLV was upset. Just like Kentucky? We’ll have to see.
The Final Four is ready. “You can just feel it in the air,’’ Duke’s Tyus Jones said of his first impression of Lucas Oil Stadium. “How important it is, what it means to us to be here.’’
Should be noisy in there. A lot more more people are coming to this Indianapolis Final Four than 17,000.