By JOEY JOHNSTON | The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA, Fla. – For the eighth straight season, Jack Bettel, a college basketball fan from Toronto, is making an NCAA tournament early-round pilgrimage with friends. Months back, Tampa was selected because they wanted warm weather.
On Selection Sunday, Bettel’s group learned they had gotten a whole lot more.
“I saw those teams pop up, shook my head and said, ‘Well, Tampa has the best field in the country this year,’ ” Bettel said Wednesday afternoon as he watched team workouts at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Actually, Tampa’s field is the best ever.
Led by two of the sport’s most storied brand names, UCLA and Kentucky, and complemented by two programs, Michigan State and Florida, that have made March Madness into a championship habit, it is the most impressive eight-team arsenal in the tournament’s early-round history.
It has the most national titles: 22.
The most Final Four appearances: 46.
The most NCAA tournament wins: 330.
“When you look at the historic aspect these teams bring to the game, there’s a reason they bring it to the game,” said Bob Williams, coach of the No. 15-seeded UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, who face No. 2 Florida in tonight’s second round. “They have great coaches. They understand what it takes. And they recruit the top players in the country. That’s a great combination.”
For Kentucky and UCLA, it has been a tradition for decades.
“This kind of job, or at UCLA, you’ve got to say, ‘Bring it. Let’s go,’ ” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who is trying to orchestrate the Wildcats’ first Final Four appearance since 1998. “The whole state moves on a made basket and a miss. We understand it. But that’s what makes it Kentucky and there’s nothing like it. Nothing like being a part of it.”
“It’s really an awesome responsibility,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “I really relish the history and tradition of UCLA, having grown up with it (in Southern California). My first seven years, coach (John) Wooden was alive and what he meant not only to UCLA basketball but the game of basketball as a whole is something we’ll never see again, at least in my lifetime.”
Eleven national titles and 18 Final Four appearances for UCLA.
Seven national titles and 13 Final Four appearances for Kentucky.
Will that dominance ever be seen again?
Perhaps in different locations. Michigan State and Florida have combined for three national titles and nine Final Four appearances in the past 12 seasons.
“It’s really exciting the first time you do things, like get to the NCAA tournament or the Final Four,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “I think it means more when you’re able to do it over and over again, when you can do it over time. That’s how you build an elite program.”
UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas probably set the standard.
Are Michigan State and Florida close to being in that club?
“I always said you’re in that club when you select recruits instead of recruiting them,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Us and Florida have made serious strides. … We’re in the modern era now, which means, ‘What did you do for me today?’ We almost forget yesterday.
“We’ve put a serious dent to get our name in that next group of 10. Those four or five (top) programs have earned the right to be there (because they’ve done it) more years than I’ve been alive.”
Another aspect of Tampa’s star-studded field – it contains two teams, Michigan State and West Virginia, that played in last season’s Final Four.
Six of the eight teams received votes in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll, including two, Michigan State and Florida, in the Top 10.
It’s quite a bit different from Tampa’s previous eight-team NCAA tournament field, which generally lacked marquee value. On the opening day, though, there were four stunning games – and four upsets – highlighted by the buzzer-beating overtime shot from Western Kentucky’s Ty Rogers. It sent a buzz through the entire NCAA tournament and was labeled “Tampa Turmoil” by ESPN.
“There are some big-time teams here, no doubt,” Clemson forward Jerai Grant said. “It’s going to be great for the fans. Hopefully, we can give them a great show.”
Bettel hopes so, too.
“Give us some great games – with these kind of teams in the field – and this will be one we’ll remember forever,” he said.