- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2010

After two weeks, four rounds, 61 games, a bevy of buzzer-beaters and a bracket-wide Attack of the Cinderellas, the Final Four kicks off Saturday in Indianapolis.

And, as happens almost every year, the NCAA Tournament is rich with drama: from the improbable rise of little Butler University and its stat-happy young coach, to West Virginia native Bob Huggins leading his alma mater to the promised land, to the unflappable Tom Izzo and his relentless Michigan State Spartans.

And then there’s Duke.

The only No. 1 seed left in the tournament, the Blue Devils bring their national following and America’s Coach to the mix, much to the relief of ratings-hungry CBS — not to mention the NCAA itself, which is weighing the possibility of going after a new TV contract this summer.

Like the Yankees and the Cowboys, Duke is a love-‘em-or-hate-‘em polarizer, a team that stirs passions for and against. And CBS, though it would never admit it, has to be hoping the Blue Devils vanquish West Virginia Saturday and deliver another huge Duke audience on Monday, like it did in 2001, the last time the Blue Devils won the national championship.

That championship and three decades of other March Madness runs made Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski the most accomplished basketball coach in the NCAA, but his role in leading USA Basketball to the gold in China took him to a new level.

And working with the NBA superstars on that Olympic team — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and all the others — apparently made an impression on the coach himself.

Upperclassmen on his current squad say control-freak Krzyzewski came back to Duke with a mellower approach to working with players.

The other three members of the Final Four bring their own compelling stories to the dance.

West Virginia’s Huggins grew up idolizing the legendary Jerry West, who led the 1959 Mountaineers to the championship game, only to lose by one point. West’s son is a member of Huggins squad.

And the Spartans have reminded everyone of Izzo’s brilliance: six Final Fours in 12 years.

But the Spartans will have to go through Butler to get to the final against Duke or West Virginia.

People who have watched Butler this year insist this tough, experienced team isn’t a Cinderella. But if they end up in Monday night’s championship, they may as well wear the glass slippers — they’re going to go down in tournament lore as the little team that could.

The Bulldogs’ 33-year-old Brad Stevens is one of the new generation of coaches who think the creative use of statistical analysis could challenge conventional thought in basketball in the same way that it has in baseball.

In Indianapolis, Butler’s mostly home-grown team of real-life Hoosiers will be playing for the national championship just a few miles from the university’s campus of about 4,000 students.

How irresistible is that?

Just another typically thrilling final act for the Final Four, which year-after-year remains the most consistently, reliably entertaining event in sports.

The Super Bowl disappoints as often as it exhilarates; baseball is divided into haves and have-nots; and as for the NBA, the proof is in the Nielsens.

With no Michael Jordan and far too many four-game sweeps in seven-game series, the NBA has been in a ratings decline for years.

Monday night’s NCAA championship, whoever plays, will probably pull in close to 20 million viewers nationwide.

The NBA? If trends from the past decade continue, the league will be hard-pressed to do half that — especially if anyone displaces Kobe Bryant and the star-studded Lakers from this year’s Finals.

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