When we ran a column on college hoops’ elite programs potentially having happy endings this season, never would’ve guessed that three of the five would actually come through. I mean, this was the Wednesday before Selection Sunday.
And now? North Carolina, UConn and Arizona are still playing.
It just so happens the Wildcats and Huskies are playing today. And they’re ahead of schedule when it comes to NCAA tournament success.
“It was only a matter of time before we bought into what the coaches were selling us,” Arizona star Derrick Williams said. “It’s a chain reaction, and you can believe in what they’re saying when you’re at a winning program like ours.”
The Wildcats (30-7) have 29 NCAA tourney appearances, Four Final berths and a title, but had a few rocky seasons in making the transition from legendary coach Lute Olson to current coach Sean Miller. There were double-digit loss seasons the first non-NCAA tourney season in Tucson since 1984 until Miller solved it in his second season.
Of course, he had plenty of help in Williams, the Pac-10 player of the year, and a young supporting cast that jelled at season’s end.
“I didn’t expect the dramatic change to happen so fast,” sixth man Kevin Parrom said. “It feels good that we’re making our own mark in the history books.”
The Elite Eight run was a bit more surprising for UConn.
The Huskies (29-9) were picked to finish 10th in the Big East, yet spent the season in the Top 25 rankings and had one of the nation’s elite players in Kemba Walker. They did finish tied for 9th in the conference, but reeled off five straight Big East tournament wins to take the title.
It’s now eight in a row. And that’s a team that relies heavily on three freshmen and two sophomores.
“It’s never unexpected to me. It’s joyous to me,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. “It’s always going to have a special place for me because of the group, because of the way we started the season. … Nothing seems to get them down. The kids really do want to win and listen, and this group has done as good a job as any team I’ve had in a long, long time.”
So what happens Saturday? One team gets to advance and play for the title. The other goes home.
But both also get to focus on next year, when the future remains bright.
You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.