Luke DeCock

Welcome to the Final Four of the unexpected and unwanted

Bruce Pearl may not have been the last person the NCAA wanted to see at a podium in front of a Final Four logo, but the list of less desirable candidates isn’t all that long.

That’s the same Bruce Pearl who had to stay away from college basketball for three years after lying to NCAA investigators at Tennessee. The same Bruce Pearl whose Auburn staff included assistant coaches caught up in two separate corruption probes, one of whom already pleaded guilty and faces two years in jail. The same Bruce Pearl who, despite or because of all of that, is a pretty good basketball coach.

“That doesn’t make what happened right,” Pearl said of his insulation from the legal issues facing assistants Chuck Person and Ira Bowman. “Certainly there have been severe penalties, both for people in coaching as well as student-athletes. Our job is to protect our student-athletes from things like that, and when we don’t do our job, there are consequences.”

There are a few unwanted guests at this Final Four, one the NCAA (and CBS) probably would have preferred have turned out differently, with Pearl here and Zion Williamson only swinging through town to accept awards.

Half the field is composed of football schools with only a passing historic interest in basketball instead of a Kentucky or a North Carolina. Tom Izzo’s presence, normally welcomed, is slightly tarnished by the sudden outrage over the way he yelled at a player in the early rounds, a shifting-tectonics moment of clashing generational attitudes, not to mention Michigan State’s shattered reputation over its handling of the predatory Larry Nassar.

Even virtuous Virginia isn’t exactly salve for CBS’ wounds, since Tony Bennett’s redemptive quest to win the title a year after falling victim to the most shocking upset in the history of the tournament unfortunately happens to involve a style of basketball – efficient and effective as it may be – that makes most casual fans want to claw their eyes out.

There is, at least, a clash of styles that should make for entertaining viewing: patient Virginia and frantic Auburn, veteran Michigan State and smothering Texas Tech. If the Final Four is anything like last weekend, when two regional finals went to overtime and a third was decided by a single point, things will be just fine.

The basketball always rises above whatever else is going on, and in this particular era of the sport, “whatever else” covers a lot of ground.

As ever, enjoyment of this tournament – its exquisite pathos and drama balanced against the at-times superhuman feats of the players – is tempered by awareness of its base inequity and the willing suspension of outrage.

After a year spent soul-searching and Rice Commissioning, the sport of college basketball has found itself about where it started, still facing many of the same issues it hoped to have addressed by this point in time, still awaiting the resolution of some aspects of the federal investigation while facing a new onslaught of lawsuits and public scrutiny over whether the always-growing riches should be split with the athletes.

“It’s been a challenging year in a lot of respects around college basketball,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in an exploding firework of understatement.

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NCAA President Mark Emmert answers questions at a news conference at the Final Four college basketball tournament, Thursday, April 4, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt York) Associated Press

While the NCAA has yet to get the information it needs from federal prosecutors to start its own investigation of schools implicated in the corruption trials, real change continues to happen elsewhere. The NCAA claimed victory while appealing the recent verdict against it that restrictions on athletes’ compensation “related to education” were illegal.

Other lawsuits burble along in the background, while the threat of legislation – state and federal – is realer than ever, with lawmakers in Washington and several states, including North Carolina, having either proposed or threatened legislation to fundamentally change the NCAA model.

“We think that legislative processes are there for people to debate and discuss these things, and we’ll certainly provide our views and our input into that discussion, whether it’s at the federal level or the state level,” Emmert said.

Change is coming, even if no one can quite wrap their mind around what form it will take, giving this Final Four a distinct fin de siecle aura. This probably isn’t the last Final Four as we know it. But it’s certainly different from any Final Four we’ve known. Or expected.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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