Though 2019 is the first year that the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four will be held at U.S. Bank Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, it is the fourth time overall that the men’s basketball champion will be decided in Minneapolis.
It’s important to describe it in those terms, rather than simply say, “The fourth time that Minneapolis has hosted the Final Four,” because in 1951 – the first year of an expanded 16-team tournament – there was no true Final Four. It was not until 1952 that four regional champions were sent to the same site for semifinal and championship games. In 1951, the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena hosted the title game alone. A crowd of 15,348 watched the Kansas State Wildcats, coached by Jack Gardner, took a 29-27 lead at halftime over Adolph Rupp’s top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, only to see Kentucky take control in the second half for a 68-58 victory. It was Rupp’s third championship in four years. 63 years later, Kansas State star Ernie Barrett told the Kansas City Star regretfully, “We were a better ballclub than they were.” But Barrett’s shoulder had been injured in K-State’s semi-final victory over Oklahoma A&M, rendering him ineffective, and the Big Seven champs shot a mere 28.8% in defeat.
At the time, Williams Arena was already 23 years old. Today “The Barn” is less than a decade away from its centennial and continues to host Golden Gophers men’s and women’s basketball. It has been renovated three times in all of those years: a modernizing remodeling in 1950, when it was divided into hockey arena and basketball arena; redone locker rooms, concourse, and seating bowl in 1992-1993; and a $2.3 million addition of loft seats in 1997. The most important detail for the players who come to The Barn each year is also one of its most intriguing features, an elevated hardwood surface that puts the game action above all fans and media seated courtside, as well as above the team benches.
Minneapolis’s first true Final Four hosting duty came during Williams Arena’s second renovation. It was held only a couple of miles to the west, across the Mississippi River, at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, home of the 1991 Major League World Series champion Minnesota Twins. A little over five months after the World Series, Mike Krzyzewski brought the defending champion Duke Blue Devils into the Twin Cities. It had been a dramatic ticket-punching for Duke, which won the East Regional Final against Kentucky, 104-103, thanks to a full-court inbound from Grant Hill to Christian Laettner, who hit a turnaround jumper as time expired. They were joined in Minneapolis by Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, led by Calbert Cheaney; Bob Huggins’s Cincinnati Bearcats, starring Nick Van Exel; and Steve Fisher’s Michigan Wolverines, headlined by the Fab Five, a group of highly recruited freshmen starters: Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, and Jimmy King.
In the semi-finals, Michigan’s youngsters handled Cincinnati’s pressure and triumphed, 76-72, led by 16 points and 11 rebounds from Webber. Duke, meanwhile, turned things around after a sub-par first half, opening the second half with a 13-0 run and holding off Indiana late, 81-78, behind 26 points from Bobby Hurley. (“I had always shot well in domes,” Hurley recalled earlier this month.) The Devils’ second straight nail-biter left Coach K in a forthright mood. “We feel lucky,” he told the media. “Very lucky.” The stage was set for a Metrodome championship: the Fab Five vs. the reigning title-holders.
The championship game, played before a crowd of 50,379, appeared to be warming up for more drama – and then suddenly turned into an anti-climax. Leading 48-45 with 5:41 to play, Duke finished the game on a 23-6 run, turning the final score into a 71-51 romp. “They beat us,” said Webber afterward, “we didn’t give it to them. They’re a great team.” Declared Krzyzewski, coach of the first team to win back-to-back titles since UCLA in 1973, “This is the best group I’ve ever worked with. They really deserve it.”
In 2001, the Final Four was back in the Metrodome and so were the Blue Devils – but this time, their backs were really against the wall. Gary Williams’s Maryland Terrapins had established themselves as Duke’s newest top challenger in the Atlantic Coast Conference in the regular season and the ACC tournament, and there were the Terps again, in their fourth meeting with Duke of the season, opening a 39-17 first-half lead atop the favored Devils. But Duke had made a habit in 2001 of rallying to break Maryland’s heart: from a 10-point deficit in the final minute in College Park (the “Miracle Minute”), from an 11-point deficit in the ACC semi-finals; and now again, in the national semis. Duke finished the game with a 78-45 run, cinching a surprisingly easy 95-84 victory. Shane Battier scored 25 points, Jason Williams added 23, and Duke was one win away from cutting down the nets once more. “The way they score,” said Maryland point guard Steve Blake, “the game is always in reach for them – as soon as you let down they come right back.” Back in Minneapolis, back in the championship game.
The defending national champions played in the other semi-final: Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans, headlined by returning seniors Charlie Bell and Andre Hutson and the NBA-bound duo of Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph. Unfortunately for the Spartans, they were pitted against Lute Olson’s loaded Arizona Wildcats, with Richard Jefferson and Gilbert Arenas. The Wildcats were playing for a higher purpose, too, dedicating their season to their head coach, who had lost his wife to cancer only a few months earlier. The end result was an 80-61 Arizona steamrolling that left Izzo searching for answers. “The only thing I’d like to figure out,” said MSU’s head coach post-game, “is how this happened.”
But like Ernie Barrett in 1951, an injury suffered in advancing proved costly. Whiplash sidelined Arenas in the second half against Michigan State and limited him in the championship game. Complicating matters, Luke Walton, now the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, was dealing with a broken thumb. In the end, the Blue Devils did what was expected of them. They led throughout, holding off each Arizona attempted rally, and finished with an 82-72 championship-clinching victory. Battier, the National Player of the Year, closed his senior season with 18 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists. “All that’s left for me,” he said post-game, “is to ride off in the sunset on a white horse.”
Three Minneapolis college basketball champions, each clad in white and blue, each the national favorite (and, in many circles, the national villain). This year, the top seed and prohibitive favorite is Duke once again.
U.S. Bank Stadium awaits.
Image of U.S. Bank Stadium from college basketball game on 11/30/2018 courtesy U.S. Bank Stadium.
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