Ghosts of past Final Fours haunt the Superdome

NEW ORLEANS — It’s Final Four practice day, and this year’s teams are taking turns on the Superdome court.

Or are those ghosts of Final Fours past? It’s hard to tell. This place has more of them than ushers.

It’s Friday, and there’s Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas, lofting easy jumpers from the left wing.

No, it’s 1982. That’s a quiet North Carolina freshman, hitting a jumper with 17 seconds left, to push the Tar Heels past Georgetown 63-62. The first warning shot of a career of a legend, from a new prince in short pants; the night the nation says hello to Michael Jordan.

It’s Friday, and there’s Peyton Siva passing to Louisville teammates.

No, it’s 1982 again, and that’s Georgetown’s Fred Brown — in college basketball’s most famous fog-of-war misidentification — thinking he is passing to a teammate and instead throwing the ball to North Carolina’s James Worthy to kill the Hoyas’ fast chance.

Afterward — with mature grace I never have seen bettered to this day — answering every question from every notebook and microphone-toting stranger.

“This,” he would say in the Superdome that night, “is part of growing up.”

It’s Friday, and there’s Kentucky’s Anthony Davis working on short jumpers from the left baseline.

No, it’s 1987. That’s Indiana’s Keith Smart, with the Hoosiers down to their final bullet, hitting a baseline jumper to beat Syracuse 74-73 — the moment that would define him the rest of his basketball life, even now as he coaches the Sacramento Kings. The end of an inexplicable journey, for Smart was a junior college transfer. Since when did Bob Knight win titles with those?

It’s Friday, and there’s Kentucky’s Marquis Teague racing up court with the basketball.

No, it’s 1993. That’s Michigan’s Chris Webber, losing his focus or his memory or something, picking up his dribble and calling a timeout that the Wolverines don’t have, with North Carolina ahead 73-71 and 11 seconds left. Technical foul; game, set, match.

“I cost my team the game,” Webber said, crying.

It’s Friday, and there are the Kansas Jayhawks working on defense, and coach Bill Self spending jovial minutes with the media.

No, it’s 2003. The defense is not by Kansas but against it — Hakim Warrick’s blocked shot at the end preserving an 81-78 Syracuse victory. Jayhawks coach Roy Williams is anything but jovial, with a CBS broadcaster pressing for answers on his interest in the North Carolina job, even as his Kansas kids hurt in the locker room.

“I don’t give a (bleep) about North Carolina,” Williams said on the air.

That was the end of the interview, and also the last we would see of the Final Four at the Superdome.

Until now.

Knight won his final championship here. Dean Smith won his first, and his last.

All four championship games here were decided by crucial plays in the final 20 seconds. All four produced moments that live forever in replay heaven. It has been a place that inspired memories, or at least was lucky enough to be the site where they happened.

So here we are again.

Somewhere in Kentucky, today will live in infamy. Two lineups must defend the honor and sanity of their schools within their state, but not one of the 10 starters was born in the Commonwealth.

If Kentucky wins, it will be the expected display of their manifest destiny, proving how much youth can rise above pressure, amid a state running a high fever.

“If you want to buy into the drama, then you buy into it,” John Calipari said Friday. “The physiology in your body — if it’s hate, anger, meanness — turns to fear within your body. I don’t think any of us are doing that.”

If Louisville wins, it will be as underdogs whose deeds never will die in their city, which is a red island in a blue sea. But, as Pitino said, to accept being the underdog can be dangerously close to accepting being inferior, and Kentucky eats teams like that for breakfast.

“It’s a good pressure, because you’ve got the goods to deliver,” he said of Kentucky’s might. “But as we all know, anything can happen in a basketball game.”

If Kansas wins the title, Self will own the remarkable feat of being a champion in his first two Final Fours. Look at all those who did not win in their first: John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Adolph Rupp, Tom Izzo, Knight, Smith.

If Ohio State wins, it will show the value of perseverance, and Jared Sullinger sitting in a beaten locker room in 2011, vowing to ignore the green-backed wooing of the NBA, to return for this chance.

Surely, the Superdome can add a suitable new ghost from all that.

There is a presumption any magic this weekend will be built with bricks, since shooting can be so difficult in the expansive vistas of the Superdome. Not that Louisville considers a low percentage anything more than a minor inconvenience. The Cardinals have gone 8-0 through the Big East and NCAA tournaments shooting under 42 percent.

Actually, scoring here has been a problem for almost nobody. The four Superdome national championship games produced shooting just under 49 percent. This is where Freddie Banks once hit 10 3-pointers for UNLV, and the Rebels still lost to Indiana 97-93.

Now here are four names of stature, and just which player might decide the day is hard to know, since all thrive on balance. Ohio State’s Thomas is the only player in the top 30 scoring of this year’s NCAA tournament who is in uniform at the Final Four.

Thomas was born nine years after Jordan’s game-winner. But he has seen it, and the impact means something at this moment.

“It’s great being here because one of the greats did it,” Thomas said. “I’ll be glad if I would be one of those players to make a game-winning shot, or I’ll be glad if any of my teammates did. It’s everybody’s dream.”

That’s what makes the best ghosts: dreams delivered, or sometimes denied.

“I think this season,” Kansas guard Elijah Johnson said, “is going to end with a nice bang.”

It’s in the right place for it.

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