The Beard and Other Things You Sort of Need to Know About Today's Final Four

Oregon forward Dillon Brooks celebrates the Ducks’ victory over Kansas during the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region final.
Oregon forward Dillon Brooks celebrates the Ducks’ victory over Kansas during the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region final.
Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star/TNS

First, a welcome to the fans of the Zags, the Heels, the Ducks, and the Cocks.

Yes, I said Cocks. More on that later.

Phoenix is the epicenter once again of the giant sports-media-industrial complex. Two years ago, it was the Super Bowl; last year, the NCAA College Football Championship Game.

This week, we’re hosting the Final Four. That’s the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

Since not everyone in Phoenix follows college basketball that closely — why would you, since Arizona State University is our only team eligible for the tournament — maybe a little explanation is in order.

Three-hundred forty-five teams play an entire season of 30 or more games each, so they can participate in their conference tournaments, so that they can become one of 68 teams selected to play in a single-elimination tournament, so that millions of Americans can fill out brackets for their office pools and slough off at work for three weeks, sneaking a peek at the TV to watch games involving teams that will never make it to the Final Four, like East Tennessee State and the University of Arizona.

Now, all those teams have been eliminated except the universities of Gonzaga, North Carolina, Oregon, and South Carolina. The Final Four.

They will play two semifinal games today, April Fools' Day, at the University of Phoenix Stadium (home of the Fighting Lawsuits).  Then on Monday night, April 3, one team will be crowned champion of what’s left of men’s college basketball now that most players who are any good turn pro after their freshman seasons. As a result, the Phoenix Suns, allegedly an NBA team, now have a starting five that is younger than most of the teams here this weekend.

Fans of four participating schools don’t need to read further. Most of you already know more about your teams than your own coaches do. Sort of like President Donald Trump knows more about fighting wars than his generals. You learned it all from talk shows.

But for sports-challenged Phoenix New Times readers, let me share a little knowledge about our Final Four so you’ll have something to talk about if you encounter someone this weekend wearing a T-shirt that says Go Cocks, Heels, Zags, or Ducks.

Gonzaga is nicknamed the Bulldogs, but no one calls them that. They are the beloved Zags, who are making their first trip ever to the Final Four.

That’s a big deal. Before the Zags played their Elite Eight game (that’s the game before you reach the Final Four), a sports writer asked their coach, Mark Few, if he is bothered by the monkey on his back.

Few seemed perplexed. “I certainly don’t wake up with one or walk around with one,” he said according to a transcript of the conversation. “So I don’t think these guys (the Zags) think I have one. I don’t think my wife thinks I have one or anybody in my family, close friends. Fishing buddies never talk about it.”

Right. I’m not an expert on fishing, either. Nevertheless, I imagine the animal fishing buddies are most likely to discuss is fish.

But I did work as a sports writer once, so I think I can translate:

In sports, having a monkey on your back usually means you suck in important games.

At least, I feel certain that the writer was just using a cliché, and wasn’t asking referring to the original meaning of the phrase, “monkey on your back,” which was an addiction to heroin. Gonzaga is a Jesuit institution. Not likely the brothers would tolerate that.

Gonzaga’s impressively bearded Przemek Karnowski guards Xavier’s Malcolm Bernard during the West Region final in San Jose, California.EXPAND
Gonzaga’s impressively bearded Przemek Karnowski guards Xavier’s Malcolm Bernard during the West Region final in San Jose, California.
Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group/TNS

Anyway, Gonzaga won its Elite Eight game to finally achieve a Final Four berth, and the monkey apparently has gone fishing.

Gonzaga also has the tournament’s most intriguing player, a 7-foot-1, 300-pound Polish center with a ZZ Top beard, Przemek Karnowski. Karnowski’s beard even has its own Twitter page, @karnowskisbeard. After Saturday’s victory over Xavier, the Beard tweaked the losing team’s most famous fan. “It was fun while it lasted @BillMurray #gozags.”

The University of Oregon is the Ducks, which is catchier than the Webfoots, which they used to be called in honor of earlier settlers of the state. Oregonians were called Webfoots because Californians made fun of the damp climate in the Willamette Valley. Of course, you wine enthusiasts recognize that no one is laughing at the Willamette weather anymore.

The nickname Ducks stuck for good in 1947, according to GoDucks.com, when the school’s first athletic director struck a deal with his buddy, a cartoonist named Walt Disney, to use a likeness of Donald — the duck, not the president — as the team’s official mascot.

Licensing became a trend at the school. These days, its teams’ fluorescent uniforms are a virtual ad for Nike.

Oregon also is an experienced Final Four team, having won the first NCAA basketball championship in 1939. Okay, it took 78 years for the Ducks to return to the Final Four … but the tradition remains even if the players from that first title team do not.

That brings us to our third Final Four team, the University of North Carolina, which nobody cares about because it beat my alma mater, Kentucky, on a lucky, last-second basket Sunday to get here.

Kentucky would have been much better for the Phoenix economy because the team is accompanied by thousands of big-spending, bourbon-infused fans wherever it travels. North Carolina graduates a lot of journalists, who are lucky to have a job these days.

The team’s nickname is the Tar Heels, I suppose, because the students didn’t know enough not to step in tar. I prefer to call then Heels, because it seems to fit.

But they’ve been to the Final Four 20 times, more than any other school, which means they’ve lost more Final Four games than any other school because they’ve only won the title only five times. Good for them.

These days, of course, North Carolina is better known for its bathroom habits. In fact, The New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz recently applauded the North Carolina for its efforts to make its restrooms safe from gender pretenders.

“In a historic ceremony at the state capitol,” Borowitz wrote, “North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory swore in a thousand officers charged with enforcing the state’s new public-bathroom regulations.

“Speaking to the newly graduated bathroom-enforcement cadets, McCrory impressed upon them the gravity of their responsibility. ‘You are the thin blue line charged with protecting the gender sanctity of North Carolina’s bathrooms. … Be careful out there.’”

That’s fake news, people. Don’t post it on your Facebook page.

Finally, we turn to South Carolina, a state that makes Arizona proud to be Arizona.

Nobody expected this South Carolina team to reach the Final Four. It had never gotten as far as the Elite Eight before. It lost five of its last seven games before the tournament, but now has won four in a row, including a victory over college basketball’s most hated team, Duke.

South Carolina also may have the tournament’s finest all-around player, Sindarius Thornwell.

I am curious, though, about the origination of his first name. Perhaps it’s a combination of the team’s No. 1 fan, Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish, and the state’s proclivity for producing political sex scandals, i.e., Congressman John Jenrette, Phi Beta Kappa South Carolina grad Donna Rice (Hughes), and Governor Mark Sanford, to name a few. Thankfully, John McCain’s senate pal Lindsey Graham isn’t on that list.

As for the school’s unfortunate nickname, officially the team is called the Gamecocks, which is a rooster raised to fight other roosters. I guess since that is illegal and animal cruelty is now frowned upon in sports (that right, Michael Vick?) or they don't like multisyllabic words, South Carolinians took to calling their team just the Cocks.

You can imagine that opposing fans have a spot of fun with that.

However, if you look up #cocks on Twitter, you will find the results almost equally divided between sports and porn.

I’ll give you an exact breakdown when I finish my research.

Enjoy the tournament.


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