There are 351 schools playing basketball at the Division I level. In March, 68 of those teams were chosen as the best in the NCAA and invited to compete in the NCAA Tournament. This Easter weekend, three weeks later, those 68 teams have all fought and have been reduced to four. Enter this season’s Final Four: Loyola-Chicago, Michigan, Villanova and Kansas. It made for a strange last weekend of an even stranger college basketball season—and UNCG fans on campus enjoyed it all.
Though the Blue and Gold were not in the Final Four, their appearance in the Big Dance moved a number of Spartans to take a keener interest in the tournament and gather at Old Town Draught House on Spring Garden St. to watch the penultimate games of the season.
Lance, a UNCG graduate from 2013, would usually be cheering for Duke this time of the year, but they were knocked out in the Elite Eight by Kansas. Now he’s cheering for Loyola-Chicago, a No. 11 seed that survived a number of heart pounding close finishes to reach the Final Four and ensure one of the greatest Cinderella stories in tournament history.
“I’m a Duke fan, but I would love to see history made with Loyola winning it all,” Lance said. “In a year that we’ve already seen history being made in a number one seed losing for the first time ever in the first round, it would be cool if we got to see it again,” he said, referring to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s epic 74-54 win over Virginia in the first round.
Rachel, a UNCG graduate from “forever ago,” was in the same boat. “I’m cheering for Loyola-Chicago, because if Duke didn’t make it, then I’m cheering for the underdog.”
In fact, with zero teams from North Carolina in this year’s Final Four, Loyola-Chicago seemed to be a popular choice around campus.
Jake, an employee at Old Town and a senior accounting major at UNCG, would be cheering for either UNCG or Syracuse, but with both teams knocked out, he was siding with the underdog. “Loyola-Chicago,” he said. “You have to cheer for the underdog.”
As a fellow mid major, UNCG fans were feeling hopeful about their own success after seeing Loyola’s magical run. Rachel thought that there was no reason the Spartans couldn’t eventually make a run of their own, especially with head coach Wes Miller’s recent contract extension.
“With Wes Miller, the future is bright,” she said.
Nick, however, a 2008 UNCG graduate who had returned to Old Town to share a beer with his friends, wasn’t cheering on the Ramblers.
“Right now, I’m cheering for Michigan,” Nick said. “I have them [in the Final Four] in my bracket, so if they win, I win my bracket pool.”
Still, Nick had plenty of respect for Loyola-Chicago, the highest seeded team in the Final Four since 2011. “It’s what the NCAA Tournament is all about, the Cinderella teams. It’s cool to see the little guy with a chance to make it all the way.”
Nick was surely pleased with the outcome of the first National Semifinal, pitting Loyola-Chicago against Michigan. The Ramblers opened up a double-digit lead on the Wolverines, but Michigan battled back and won, 69-57.
Matthew McKay, a housing coordinator at UNCG seemed to be the only Kansas fan in the house, though his devotion was only casual. “Based on who’s left, I’m probably cheering for KU,” he said. “I know somebody who works there. But I’m not that big into college basketball. I’m more into college football.”
But it was a poor showing from the Jayhawks, who were thoroughly dismantled by Villanova’s seemingly unstoppable offense. The Wildcats unleashed a shooting onslaught upon Kansas on Saturday night, attempting a shocking 40 threes and making 18 of them. They had already set the Final Four record for threes made by the end of the first half.
Villanova won, 95-79, setting up Monday night’s national championship. One thing is certain: even in a down year for basketball in the state, enthusiasm for the Final Four is still alive and well in Greensboro. Expect that zeal to carry over to next year, when it will hopefully be UNCG instead of Loyola-Chicago donning that glass slipper.