The Final Four returns to San Antonio this week, 10 years after an epic edition of college basketball’s final weekend also hit the Alamo City. That 2008 Final Four may well have been the last truly great one, something I say only minimally because my alma mater, Kansas, came out on top.
No, whether or not the Jayhawks had ultimately triumphed over Memphis, UCLA and North Carolina, the 2008 Final Four may have been the pinnacle of college basketball this century; featuring three blue blood programs, three current Hall of Fame coaches, loads NBA talent and One Shining Moment that is still featured on every NCAA Tournament broadcast.
To date, players on the four teams have accounted for 139 NBA seasons, 15 All-Star appearances, two MVP awards and six NBA championships.
In retrospect, 2008 was also a crossroads for the sport. UCLA and Memphis rode to San Antonio on the backs of one-and-done superstars. Kansas and North Carolina supported by juniors and seniors who had turned down opportunities to leave earlier for the NBA.
UCLA, in the midst of a run of three consecutive Final Fours under Ben Howland — who may someday join Bill Self, John Calipari and Roy Williams in the Naismith Hall of Fame — was featured a young roster led by freshman Kevin Love and sophomore Russell Westbrook, but seniors Darren Collison and Luc Mba a Moute played huge roles.
Memphis, which beat the Bruins to advance to the title game, had a veteran All-American in Chris Douglas-Roberts, but the true superstar was freshman sensation Derrick Rose.
On the other side of the bracket, UNC was built around three-time All-American Tyler Hansbrough, but featured standouts such as Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson and Danny Green around him.
Kansas, with seven future NBA players on the roster, had juniors Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers among the best defensive players in the nation and four big men who would go on to long pro careers.
It was a level of talent across the board that rivaled college basketball’s heyday of the 1980s. To put it in perspective, try to imagine the Tar Heels’ 2017 national championship squad trying to hang with the 2008 group that lost in the semifinals. It’s easy to picture the 2008 squad winning seven or eight out of ten.
The unfortunate truth is the overall talent and quality of play in college basketball has dwindled since then. Consider the Philadelphia 76ers, building a contender around young stars Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and Joel Embiid, who played in zero NCAA Tournament games combined.
Most one-and-done players don’t stick around long enough to make kind of impact on a program Love and Rose did. The veterans who decide to stay in college simply aren’t as good as the likes of Hansbrough or Chalmers. Frank Mason won all the major National Player of the Year awards for Kansas last year, but Self still considers Sherron Collins, a guard on that 2008 Kansas team, the best perimeter player he’s coached in Lawrence.
And it wasn’t just the high caliber of talent on the floor and the benches that made the 2008 Final Four so special. The games themselves were thrilling. In a semifinal battle of future NBA MVP point guards, Westbrook for UCLA and Rose for Memphis, it was the competition in the paint that paved the way to the championship game for the Tigers.
Douglas-Roberts scored a game-high 28 points while he and his Memphis front court mates limited the Pac-10 Player of the Year, Love, to 12 points. The Tigers, winners of a record 38th game that season, took a three-point lead at halftime and methodically stretched it out in the second half, to advance to the title game with a 78-63 win.
In the second semifinal, North Carolina’s Roy Williams faced his old program, Kansas. The Jayhawks raced to a 40-12 lead in the game’s first 15 minutes, but the Tar Heels managed to get back within four points almost halfway through the second half. Kansas closed strong and won 84-66, to set up a meeting between rivals Self and Calipari in the final with both coaches looking for their first NCAA title.
Memphis came in a two-point favorite and the game was back and forth most of the way until the TIgers went on a 10-0 run late in the second half to build a nine-point lead with 2:12 left on the clock.
That led to one of the most dramatic comebacks in tournament history, with the Jayhawks chipping away at the lead while Memphis repeatedly missed free throws. With the clock winding down and the Tigers clinging to a three-point lead, Collins handed the ball off to Chalmers, nailed a shot from beyond the top of the key with two seconds left.
Kansas score the first six points of overtime and won 75-68.
There have been thrilling finishes and superstars in subsequent Final Fours. Gordon Hayward and Butler come to mind.
But it hasn’t all come together again like it did a decade ago. It’s easy to wonder if it will again.