A conference having more than one team in the Final Four is nothing new in the 1990s.
With Kentucky and Mississippi State of the Southeastern Conference both heading to the Meadowlands this weekend, five of the seven Final Fours of the decade have had a pair of schools from the same league.
The conference that was expected to keep the tradition of multi-berths alive this year was the Big East, which had three teams in the Top Ten all season. It did get one team to the national semifinals, but it wasn’t one of the big boys, it was Syracuse, the fourth-best team in the league.
The other team in the mix for the national championship will be top-ranked Massachusetts, like Mississippi State making its first appearance in the Final Four.
So 60 NCAA tournament games have given us a matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2, the first in the NCAA tournament since top-ranked Houston and Louisville met in the Final Four in 1983.
This Final Four has already been compared to that one, with many calling the Kentucky-Massachusetts meeting of top seeds the title game and Monday night a mere formality for netcutting purposes.
That’s what people thought 13 years ago when Houston prevailed in an epic tournament game and then waited 48 hours to be ambushed by North Carolina State, coached by the late Jim Valvano, in the shocking title game.
Syracuse was the No. 4 seed in the West and Mississippi State was a rung lower in the Southeast. Both took different roads to reach the Meadowlands.
Syracuse, making its third Final Four appearance and first since 1987, went on a regional thrill ride, beating Georgia in overtime on a couple of last-second shots and then hanging on to knock off second-seeded Kansas.
Mississippi State comes in off a two-week run that saw the Bulldogs beat Kentucky in the SEC tournament championship before taking out the top seeds in their region, Connecticut and Cincinnati.
What makes the Kentucky-UMass matchup even more delicious is that it’s a rematch of the November game that saw Massachusetts handle the Wildcats in an impressive 92-82 victory. The Minutemen lost only once this season and Kentucky just twice.
Syracuse comes in with eight losses and Mississippi State has one less, further lessening the importance of the opener of Saturday’s double-header.
Kentucky, whose five national championships are second only to UCLA’s 11, was last in the Final Four in 1993, when the Wildcats lost in overtime to Michigan.
All the facts are there and the strategy discussions will follow: Can Mississippi State break Syracuse’s 2-3 zone? Can the Orangmen handle the physical play of the Bulldogs? Will the early win mean confidence for the Minutemen or revenge for the Wildcats? Has Kentucky learned how to better handle center Marcus Camby or will the UMass guards again be nonplused against the press?
The biggest question, however, may be: Did we learn anything from the 1983 Final Four?