Good Friday gives way to Great Saturday. To the greatest Saturday in sports. Final Four Saturday. To the semifinals, or semis. [Note: It’s pronounced “SEM-ees.” Not SEM-eyes. SEM-eyes have 16 wheels. They have no place in basketball parlance, and belong on highways. Back to hoops…].
At 6:07 p.m., Butler, blessed Butler, America’s Bulldogs, will tip off against Sparty — Michigan State, which is back in yet another Final Four under the great coach Tom Izzo. Butler is in its very first Final Four. Brad Stevens, the baby-faced coach, looks as young as some of his players. Gordon Hayward, the sophomore forward, looks like he’s
13; he also looks like a potential lottery pick to NBA scouts. Not that he’s going anywhere soon, except to class. Yet not before going to Lucas Oil Stadium today, where 70,000 fans will savor the semifinals and all four teams will dream big.
Michigan State, the 2000 national champion and last year’s runnerup, is the consensus favorite in this semi, Butler the people’s choice. Izzo, of course, is taking nothing for granted. Just as the late, great Al McGuire took nothing — and no one — for granted when he coached at Marquette:
“I don’t believe in looking past anybody. I wouldn’t look past the Little Sisters of the Poor after they stayed up all night.”
Of course, had the good Sisters stayed up all night, Al would have been right there with ’em, buying every other round. Or perhaps every third. Ever on the lookout for a bargain, Al, the Irish-Catholic kid from Rockaway Beach, N.Y., would often walk into an establishment and ask, “Do you honor the Clergy discount?”
At 8:47 p.m., Duke meets West Virginia in the second semi. It’s Mike Krzyzewski’s 11th Final Four, just one behind John Wooden, the UCLA legend and a Hoosier native. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, the inappropriately nicknamed “Huggy Bear,” is back in the Final Four for the first time since ’92 and just the second in his career. It’s the
Mountaineers’ second trip, too, the first since Zeke from Cabin Creek — a/k/a homeboy Jerry West — led the ‘Eers to the 1959 NCAA title game. Pete Newell’s Cal kids won that won.
While Coach K and Huggy Bear have rarely been shy about launching the F-bomb and the 3-pointer, it’s unlikely either will channel one of Al’s pre-game speeches:
“All right, let’s show them we’re the number one team in the country and beat the [bleep] out of them. Queen of Victory pray for us.”
Whatever tonight’s outcomes, well, here’s Al again:
“You’ve got to remember, it’s a game. If we lose, a new star will appear in the east.”
“I think everyone should go to college and get a degree and then spend six months as a bartender and six months as a cab driver. Then they would really be educated.”
“Every obnoxious fan has a wife [at] home who dominates him.”
On the playing ability of Rick Majerus, a Marquette student who unsuccessfully tried out for the team, became a valued young assistant coach on McGuire’s staff when the Warriors won the 1977 NCAA title, and who then coached Utah to the 1998 NCAA final:
“I’d put the mascot in first.”
Photo: Al McGuire (left) and Rick Majerus (right) coaching the Marquette University team.