2021 Final Four

This should be great.

Jim Rome
April 01, 2021 - 11:46 am
UCLA

USA Today

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The Final Four is set. And while it was looking chalky as hell, it turns out to be a damn good Final Four. In fact, it’s the perfect mix. Two number one seeds, a number two, and an 11. You’ve got the two teams who were regarded as the best teams in the sport all year long in Gonzaga and Baylor. Then you have a Houston team that has been knocking on the door for a couple years. And then you have UCLA.

Now, I want to talk about the other three teams for a moment before I get to Mick Cronin and UCLA. Because all four teams deserve their respect for getting to the Final Four this year. Because there has not been a more difficult season to navigate.

Making the Final Four any year is tough, making it this year is so much harder.

This year, it wasn’t just good enough to be good enough, you also had to be disciplined as hell when it came to COVID and honestly you probably had to have some luck too. You had to avoid what happened to Virginia, Duke, and Kansas where a positive test ended their runs in their conference tournaments. And you had to avoid what happened to VCU where they reached the NCAA tournament and were sent home before playing a game.

So just because everyone thought that Gonzaga and Baylor were the best teams before the start of the season doesn’t mean it was a slam dunk they would be in this spot at the end of the season. Far from it. And let’s also take a moment to reconsider the notion that these were the two best teams at the start of the season.

The fact that Gonzaga came into the season regarded as the best team in the country isn’t shocking, but at the same time, it is absolutely stunning. It is a testament to what Mark Few has built in Spokane. He has taken this program from a really nice story, to a dangerous mid-major, to a basketball powerhouse, and he’s done it in amazing ways.

They are now in their second Final Four in five years. They are one win away from their second championship game in five years. And they are two wins away from the sport’s first undefeated season in nearly 50 years. That is jaw-dropping.

You know what else is jaw-dropping? What Scott Drew has done at Baylor.

When he took over that job, the program was reeling from one of the all-time worst scandals ever. The murder of a player by another player and a head coach in Dave Bliss who was caught on tape telling his players to lie to the authorities and the NCAA, and to tell everyone that the murder victim had been dealing drugs.

What I’m saying is, the Baylor basketball job wasn’t exactly a desirable job when Scott Drew took it and look where he is now. If all he did was reach the Elite Eight, as he did in 2010 and 2012, that would still be one of the all-time great turnarounds. Going to the Final Four and having a legit look at a title, is next level.

And speaking of next level, let’s talk about Kelvin Sampson. If you know this show, you know this is a Kelvin Sampson house. And you know that he’s coming on the show in the third hour. This is a Kelvin Sampson house because he’s one of the best conversations around.

He worked his ass off. And recruited guys who want to work their asses off. That’s how you get to the Round of 32 in your fourth season, the conference title and Sweet 16 the following year, another conference title the year after that, and now the Final Four.

And if you want to talk about humility, there’s the one guy who I haven’t gotten to yet in the Final Four. I’m talking about Mick Cronin. Michael Walter Cronin. Because what he has done this season and in this tournament run has been nothing short of incredible.

UCLA is an 11-seed. And not just an 11-seed, they were one of the 11-seeds who had to play in a play-in game. That means that they were among the last teams into the field. They lost four straight games coming into the NCAA tournament. They were down huge to Michigan State in the play-in game. They could’ve packed their bags at halftime and nobody would’ve blamed them.  IN FACT, EVERYONE EXPECTED IT. 

AND MOST teams would have done just that. But not this team. Not a Mick Cronin team. Because if you know anything about Mick Cronin and his teams, you know they are tough as hell and they fight like hell. They came back from down double digits to beat Michigan State in overtime. Then dealt with the juggernaut that was BYU.

Then hammered Abilene Christian, capping off a run of three games in five days. And if it ended there, it would’ve been a great story. But it didn’t. They showed up for the second weekend and beat many people’s championship darkhorse, Alabama, by 10 in overtime. And then chased that by beating many people’s championship favorite, Michigan, by two
And now they are in the Final Four. And doing it from a play-in game, during a pandemic, in a season where they’ve already lost multiple key players. They had a five-star point guard opt for the G-League. The team’s best player, Chris Smith, has been out since January. And another key player has missed the last two months as well.

But they never gave up. They are the perfect embodiment of their head coach.

And let me make something perfectly clear: there are a lot of people in Southern California and around the country who should be having a giant crow sandwich and then writing an apology to Mick Cronin.

Because he wasn’t a universally beloved choice for UCLA when he was hired. I loved the move and loved him coming to SoCal, but for some reason, some people JUST didn’t get it.  Just didn’t get mick. They just didn’t know, but of course, that just didn’t stop them from letting you know how unimpressed they were the hire. 

And if there was ever a guy who deserved to hit the world with a “how you like me now?” It’s Mick Cronin. But you know he’s not going to do that. Instead, he’ll just remind you of what he said all along.

"April 9th, 2019, I told you, I spell fun W-I-N. You have to find a way to win, and these guys are having the most fun they have ever had in their life back in that locker room because they won. I told them I was going to teach them how to win."

He called his shot and he’s been backing it up ever since. Nothing but the utmost respect.  But I had already had that for the man. Because I knew him and had watched him closely, and spoken to him numerous times over the years. And for those who didn’t know the man or what he was about, on behalf of mick Cronin, I accept your apology.  Because a helluva lot of you owe him one. And he’s too buys right now trying to figure out Gonzaga to keep alive one of the great tournament runs ever to accept them himself.