GLENDALE, Ariz. — This year’s Final Four will be different than Final Fours past, as three of the teams playing on the final weekend of the college basketball season are, functionally, doing so for the first time in the history of their program.
Neither Gonzaga nor South Carolina has played on this stage before. Oregon has — once — but this is their first Final Four since the first Final Four all the way back in 1939.
“Before I was born,” Roy Williams, head coach of the blue-blood North Carolina Tar Heels said, his second-straight appearance in the Final Four and the fifth time in 14 years in Chapel Hill that he’s reached this stage. Roy isn’t young, either; Theo Pinson could only muster a “Really?” when he found out that there was actual basketball played before Williams was born.
“I’m probably the only guy you’re going to know who has met Howard Hobson, who was the coach of that team,” Sportscenter anchor Neil Everett said.
Everett is in a unique situation heading into this Final Four.
Oregon is in his blood. His grandfather played football on Oregon’s 1920 Rose Bowl winning team. His father’s nickname is Laddie, after the star player on that 1939 national title-winning hoops. He himself is a graduate of Oregon, where he met his wife and attended the school at the same time as Gonzaga head coach Mark Few.
“I met my wife 10 years ago and she was an Oregon grad and prompted me to get more involved with Oregon again and make more of an effort,” Everett said. He hasn’t hidden his affection for the Tall Firs on air. “Since Coach Altman’s gotten there, we’ve gotten more into basketball and have enjoyed the ride for both.”
But Everett also grew up in Spokane. The first basketball game that he ever went to was a Gonzaga game. He refers to Gonzaga as “America’s team” on Sportscenter.
It’s hard to handle your team’s first trip to a Final Four, let alone the two teams that have a hold of your heart.
While his allegiances are torn, Everett will hardly be the only person experiencing the Final Four for the first time as a fan.
South Carolina had never won back-to-back games in the NCAA tournament before this season. They did that twice in this season alone. Who knows if a run like this will happen again, which is why South Carolina fans will be traveling en masse across the country.
“We flew from Charlotte and we asked security if they’ve seen more UNC or SC fans, and they said SC,” Donovan Houston, a senior at South Carolina, said. “I took three tests early this week to come to this game. I’m studying electrical engineering.”
Houston never expected a run like this, not with Duke looming as a potential second round matchup.
“We were fine with us getting into the tournament,” he said with a laugh. “We got a call last year that we were supposed to make it but they called the wrong USC — even though we’re the original, we were founded first — they called University of Southern Cal. We are bitter, and no one has been talking about that.”
Houston has spent the first two rounds of the tournament watching from Five Points in Columbia, opting to stay at home instead of spending the money it would take to get to, stay in, Greenville and New York, let alone pay for a ticket.
It was $300 to get a ticket to the games in Greenville. It was more in New York. Houston and fellow senior Sami Patel both paid $40, which will cover student section seats to both games, assuming that Gonzaga gets to the final.
Five Points was a fine place to watch a game, however. It was an even better place to celebrate a win.
“It has this one fountain in between all the bars, everyone stampeded the fountain and started jumping in it,” Patel said. “It was pretty majestic. There has to be 20,000 people on the streets in five points celebrating.”
Gonzaga fans were also celebrating their team’s success in the dance, although they weren’t always convinced that it was going to happen.
“I figured it would happen eventually,” said Danny Holland, who grew up just south of Spokane and now lives in Arizona. “But when you watch games, like when they beat Northwestern, they blew a 20-point lead, and we were just like, ‘Well, this is the team we know.'”
“But we finally made it.”
Holland has yet to get tickets for the game. He’s not a Gonzaga student, which means that if he’s going to go, he’s going to have to pay full mark-up on the secondary market. As of this publishing, it will cost you at least $264 on Seat Geek just to get in the door for Saturday’s semifinal games and more than $400 if you want to risk it and buy tickets for both Saturday and Monday.
Those Gonzaga fans, though, they’re pretty confident.
“I have them in my championship, so I knew it was happening,” Brittany Schmidt said.
Did you pick them to win it?
“Yeah. Every year. Been waiting a long time for this.”
No one knows that better than Adam Morrison, a lifelong Gonzaga fan-turned-Gonzaga legend.
“I was a ball boy for the 1995 team, the first team that went to the NCAA tournament,” he said. “I’ve been a Zag fan my entire life and it’s been amazing to see, in a 20 year span, a program have a deep NCAA run and parlay it to sustained success.”