INDIANAPOLIS – The NCAA Tournament will conclude in Atlanta in a week, but can there be more of a “Final Four” feel than what has descended on Indianapolis this week?
The Midwest Regional will be played today and Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, which knows a thing or two about hosting national championship environments. And you'll have to forgive me my homer emotions, but when Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski walk into an arena, this is the place for basketball fans to be this week over any other venue in the tournament.
Top-seed Louisville (31-5) will battle 12th-seed Oregon (28-8) at 7:15 p.m., while second seed Duke (29-5) faces third seed Michigan State (27-8) at (approximately) 9:45 p.m.
“It's exciting,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “Those three guys have unbelievable careers and they're all going to be Hall of Fame coaches.”
Altman is the odd man out, having only won 473 games in his career.
The coaches are familiar. The programs are familiar. And the lucky enough basketball fans to be in attendance will quickly realize that the teams' styles are fitting and familiar.
In Louisville, Pitino has implemented a strategy to utilize a stable full of thoroughbreds. The Cardinals play a lot of bodies and they pressure you defensively from the time you walk out of your hotel to head over to the stadium.
“If you are going to apply full-court pressure,” Pitino said, “you can't do it unless you use your scholarships. I think you have to play your bench.”
The Cardinals' made a veteran Colorado State team play like freshmen – high school freshmen – a week ago. So the Ducks are more than likely worried sick.
Are you kidding? They're from the northwest. These guys are as stress-free as a hippie commune.
“We have to stay aggressive on offense and defense,” Duck guard Jonathan Loyd said. “We have to handle their pressure and we should be fine. It is easier said than done, but we are confident that we can handle it.”
Pitino and his players don't mind getting up and down the court with anyone, but this being Oregon, how can this team not like to run just for the fun of it?
“(Oklahoma State coach) Travis Ford came to our practice and he said 'You can't simulate Oregon's speed in the open court,'” Pitino said. “If you're watching UCLA and Oregon, which I did, you can tell how fast both teams are.”
If there is a coach that can withstand the intimidation factor of going up against Krzyzewski, it is Izzo.
The Michigan State coach grew up in a working-class family in the Upper Peninsula, where it snows simply out of boredom.
You want tough? Izzo laughs off his players getting into fights – with each other.
“I know that they are going to play every play,” Krzyzewski. “There are no possessions off. This is a big-time game.”
Sparty will throw Derrick Nix (270 pounds) and Gary native Brandon Dawson at Duke's nobility with the frequency and pounding of an automotive piston.
“I know they're well prepared and that they play to win,” Krzyzewski said.
In the caverns of Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday, Duke center and Warsaw native Mason Plumlee caught a ride to an interview session on a golf cart. There'd be no walking for the All-American.
Krzyzewski likes to talk about his players' toughness, but let's call a blueblood program for what it is, as the Blue Devils don't lack for any necessary comfort and amenity.
Duke certainly has won its share of games (and national championships), and perhaps the fact that eight of its players on the roster today were rated among the top 79 players in the entire country as seniors.
Ironically, the one that wasn't? Blue Devil leading scorer Seth Curry.
“When the brackets came out and I saw the Midwest Regional,” Izzo said, “ I did what most Spartan fans did, I took a little sigh and sat back, and then I said 'You know, this is the way it's supposed to be (in playing Duke).' If you can get through the first weekend, everybody knows every game is going to be dynamite. What better program to start out with than Duke?”
And what better way – and what better place - to spend a weekend than watching all of this?