'Why not?': Unlikely Final Four is one for the grinders

By Zach Helfand
Los Angeles Times
South Carolina players celebrate with the championship trophy after beating Florida for the program's first Final Four trip.

Kansas City, Mo. — Oregon coach Dana Altman made his way slowly to each player’s locker Saturday, sipping water from a plastic cup. He looked less elated than pleasantly content, like a man about to settle down in the good chair after a hard day’s work.

The only thing that betrayed the euphoria and improbability of the moment was his shirt. It was wet. The Ducks, after reaching their first Final Four since 1939, had dumped a bucket of ice over their aww-shucks coach.

Altman took it, “as uncomfortable as all get out,” assistant coach Mike Mennenga said.

A similar scene played out across the country Saturday and into Sunday as wide-eyed newcomers Gonzaga and South Carolina joined Oregon and perennial powerhouse North Carolina in the Final Four.

In San Jose, Calif., Gonzaga, author of so many NCAA Tournament upsets, wrote one of its biggest yet: The Bulldogs had inspired their gentle, reserved coach, Mark Few, to jump into the arms of his 300-pound center, Przemek Karnowski.

“Why not?” he said, describing the theme of the evening.

In New York, South Carolina coach Frank Martin, he of the Dad-picking-you-up-from-detention glare, was near tears. He, too, asked his team the question of the weekend: “Why not?”

Why not make it to the Final Four? For these three teams, the reasons were plenty.

Oregon’s last Final Four was the first one ever. The Ducks lost a key player, forward Chris Boucher, right before the Tournament started but persevered.

Gonzaga once was a cute story, the small Jesuit school from the Northwest that reached the regional finals in 1999 and inspired Gus Johnson’s immortal call, “The slipper still fits!” The slipper went dancing into the Tournament for the 19th season in a row this year but still had never made it to the Final Four.

Which was better than South Carolina. The Gamecocks hadn’t won a single NCAA Tournament game since 1973.

But this year’s Final Four has become one for grinders, three less-than-storied programs who have performed in the image of the work-a-day basketball lifers who coach them.

And then there is mighty North Carolina, which now has made more Final Four appearances, 20, than any other team after surviving Kentucky in a classic on Sunday. North Carolina adds the star power, but this year’s collection of teams is an ode to quiet toil, and the career-defining joy for three coaches was hard to miss.

Altman, who grew up in tiny Crete, Neb., got his start as the coach and phys-ed instructor at the vaguely named Southeast Community College. He never thought he’d coach Division-I basketball, much less this.

“Today is just about our players,” Altman demurred, when asked about his journey to the Final Four. “I feel so good for them.”

Few is the son of a small-town pastor from Oregon. He spent his entire career, from grad assistant to head coach, at one school.

“I’ve been there 28 years,” he said Saturday. “My first year on staff we won four Division I games. And, I mean, this wasn’t even possible.”

The winning has shown unlikely sides of some of the coaches. Martin — son of a single mother from Cuba, a former Miami bouncer who has been shot at, the most intimidating man in the sport — was unmasked as a mush.

“Just — I’m just out of words,” he said. “Out of words.”

But Roy Williams, himself a former junior-varsity player at North Carolina who later had to supplement his coaching salary selling calendars, might be leading the favorite.

Gonzaga has been the most consistent team all season. A No. 7 seed, South Carolina was picked to lose in the first round by most brackets on Three of every 1,000 brackets had the Gamecocks in the Final Four.

Standing atop a ladder, Few shrugged his shoulders and said now that Gonzaga had made it this far, “Might as well win it.”

Final Four

At University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.


South Carolina (26-10) vs. Gonzaga (36-1), 6:09 p.m., CBS

North Carolina (31-7) vs. Oregon (33-5), 8:49 p.m., CBS


Championship, 9 p.m., CBS