Historic first: Top seeds advance to Final Four

HOUSTON — John Wooden gave us the basics of modern-day coaching. Dean Smith refined ‘em. James Naismith, well, he simply invented basketball.

Now the schools these greats once coached — UCLA, North Carolina and Kansas — are in the Final Four, a once-in-a-generation convergence of three of college basketball’s most storied programs on the sport’s biggest stage.

March Madness? This is more like Hoops History 101 getting ready to be played out in an oversized classroom called the Alamodome, starting Saturday in San Antonio.

UCLA, the team that won 10 titles in the ’60s and ’70s under the guidance of Wooden — that rolled-up sheaf of game notes always in hand — will play Memphis, a team that also has a colorful and successful history, though not nearly that of the other three.

The “Wizard of Westwood” is now 97 and recovering from a broken collarbone and wrist, but almost sure to watch his beloved Bruins, in their record 18th Final Four, on TV from home.

In Saturday’s other semifinal, it will be Kansas against North Carolina, a perfect matchup with a perfect story line — that of North Carolina coach Roy Williams going against Kansas, the program he left in 2003 amid shouts that he was a traitor for leaving his adopted school to return to his alma mater.

Carolina is in its 17th Final Four, and Kansas its 13th.

“They gave me a chance when I was not exactly a household name. I was barely a name in my own house,” Williams said of Kansas. “I have no idea what my emotions will be. I’m just ecstatic for this club right now.”

And speaking of perfect: This is the first time since the NCAA started seeding teams in 1979 that all four top teams — from the South, Midwest, East and West regionals — advanced to the Final Four.

“This is one of those years where it appears from the Day One, people said there are four teams that are a little bit better than everybody else,” Memphis coach John Calipari said Sunday after his team’s 85-67 win over Texas. “That’s what they said. We happen to be one of those teams.”

The early betting pick among these four power programs is North Carolina, listed as a 9-5 favorite at the Las Vegas Hilton Race and Sports Book. Memphis was the long shot at 3-1.

Those who can’t get money down in Nevada certainly might have action in one of those millions of office pools around the country. Those who picked all the favorites in their brackets are looking good. But does anyone really do that anymore?

A big part of the uber-popularity of the NCAA tournament is the idea that the little guys really do have a chance to shock the world during these three magical weeks in March (and April). Two years ago, it was George Mason — the commuter school in northern Virginia — coming from nowhere to crash the Final Four party.

This year’s George Mason was nearly 10th-seeded Davidson, which might be about the 10th-best-known school in the state of North Carolina, but still gave Kansas a heck of a run Sunday before falling 59-57.

The Jayhawks held their breath while Davidson’s Jason Richards launched a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have won it. It missed and KU prevailed to officially make it a Final Four for big boys, only.

These are the programs that were established in the 1890s, 1910s, 1920s, the ones that sell great players on their schools not only because of gleaming gyms and awesome weight rooms, but because it gives them a chance to wear the same uniforms as guys named Alcindor and Walton, Chamberlain and Manning, Jordan and Worthy.

Which new name might become household in the next week?

Maybe Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina, the guy with the nickname “Psycho T,” whose iconic picture is one of him bleeding with a broken nose after receiving a bone-rattling elbow in a game against archrival Duke last season.

Or Kevin Love, the sensational freshman who has fit into a veteran lineup at UCLA that is making its third straight trip to the Final Four.

Or Brandon Rush, the guard who has led Kansas in scoring all of his three years in college but has finally helped himself and his long-suffering coach, Bill Self, to the Final Four.

Or Derrick Rose, the Chicago kid who went to Memphis, chose jersey No. 23 and reminds many of the Windy City’s most famous hoopster, Michael Jordan himself.

“It’s little ol’ Memphis against all these prestigious programs,” Tigers guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said. “That’s what it is, just little ol’ Memphis.”

Not so little, though.

The Tigers, at 37-1, need one more win to set the single-season record for victories by an NCAA Division I team.

They picked up most of those wins in Conference USA, a so-called “mid-major” conference that doesn’t command the respect of the Big 12, Pac-10 or Atlantic Coast Conferences, where the other teams come from.

Indeed, this Final Four is as much about where they come from as where they’re going.

These teams have history on their side — and a chance to make some more.

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