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Hockey Goes On Hold While Basketball Shines

While we wait for the Frozen Four to start in St. Paul, the NCAA Final Four men’s and women’s basketball has plenty to offer.

Boston College forward Jack Malone embraces goaltender Jacob Fowler. The team won its regional and will play in the Frozen Four in St. Paul. (Photo courtesy of BC Athletics)

The NCAA has always taken careful steps to protect its legendary men’s basketball “Final Four” franchise, which includes forbidding anyone else from using that iconic term. Hockey used to use it, then got shuffled off to “Frozen Four” territory. As time passed, and the NCAA wanted to give women’s basketball a boost, it allowed the women to use the sacred term, too.

What is interesting is that as time has evolved, there is no question that women’s Division I basketball has caught and passed the men from the standpoints of technical excellence and creative playmaking. Plus, they shoot 3-pointers as though they invented them.

Another interesting footnote to the NCAA’s wild and crazy climax to the winter sports season is that somehow the NCAA convinced the rest of the world to reserve the first weekend in April for the basketball semifinals and finals — the Final Four in both men’s and women’s basketball. That forces the NCAA hockey tournament to play down to its final four — which are known as the “Frozen Four” — and then put its game on hold before being allowed to finish its peak competition. It’s grown to now-popular status and fills up big arena. But it must wait to be decided a week later.

We have a vested interest this year, because the men’s hockey Frozen Four will be held at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center. The semifinals are on April 11, with the two winners coming back to collide on April 13 to decide the championship.

That means a two-week break from the wind-up to the intensely heated and competitive play in four regionals around the country, which led to some very surprising survivors to convene in St. Paul. In the first semifinal, it will be No. 2-ranked Boston University facing No. 3 Denver at 4 p.m., followed by the 7:30 p.m. game between No. 1 Boston College and Big Ten stalwart Michigan.

If it appears that all six of Minnesota’s Division I hopefuls got locked out of their home facility, we must admit that there could probably not be four more potent heavyweights in the college hockey world than the ones in the Frozen Four.

Men’s hockey regionals set Frozen Four
We were all hoping to see two or three of Minnesota’s teams reach the Frozen Four, but they fell like dominos leading up to or into the regionals. The Minnesota Gophers was the only team from the state to reach a regional final. That was in Sioux Falls, where the Gophers got a couple of incredibly lucky breaks to score goals and subdue Omaha 3-2 in the semifinal, only to fall 6-3 to Boston University.

At Springfield, Mass., Denver escaped Massachusetts 2-1 in overtime after Cornell came back and whipped Maine 3-1 in the semifinals. In that final, Cornell banged Denver around with speed and strength, and the Pioneers — who spent the season banging around NCHC rivals — were fortunate to win 2-1 to gain the Frozen Four in the slot against BU.

At Providence, Boston College had a tough opener against upstart Michigan Tech from the CCHA before erupting in the third period for a 6-1 victory. Defending NCAA champ Quinnipiac rallied to stun Wisconsin 3-2 in overtime. Quinnipiac then gave BC all it could handle before the Eagles battled from behind four times to catch the Bobcats and only gained the lead once — in overtime, for a 5-4 victory.

That left Maryland Heights, Mo., where Big Ten arch-rivals Michigan State and Michigan battled through a classic championship game before Michigan got third-period goals 12 seconds apart, from Dylan Duke and Gavin Brindley, and beat the Big Ten champion Spartans 5-2.

We’ve got another week to let the ice chips land where they might and ponder the Denver-BU game and the BC-Michigan match. What will astound the NCAA is that this year, instead of brushing off the hockey finals, the men’s basketball final will serve as the appetizer for what should be a fantastic Frozen Four.

And the NCAA women’s basketball finals will put on a show that may attract more attention than the men get — or deserve.

Final Fours in men’s, women’s hoops set with intriguing matchups
What could save the men’s Final Four is that UConn — the driving force in women’s basketball — will also be in the men’s field, and faces Alabama in the second semifinal on Saturday (7:49 p.m. CT). The first semifinal, at 5:09 p.m., features two Cinderella stories when Purdue, from the Big Ten, makes its first Final Four appearance against North Carolina State.

The story of the NC State Wolfpack men’s team means that institution also has both men’s and women’s teams in the Final Four, but NC State spent most of the winter sputtering and struggling to finish 10th in the Atlantic Coast Conference. NC State lost its final four games of the regular season. But everybody gets into the conference tournament and, for no apparent reason, the Wolfpack took off — and hasn’t lost since!

NC State won the South Region by blitzing arch-rival Duke 76-64, and the Wolfpack extended their winning streak to nine games, through the playoffs. How refreshing to not have the usual high-end basketball powers dominating the headlines this year. Purdue would be Cinderella if NC State didn’t also have glass sneakers.

In the women’s Final Four, NC State and UConn also made those fields, and NC State gets to take on South Carolina, which comes in behind the steamroller of a 36-0 record. The field became solidified Monday night when Iowa got a 41-point performance from Caitlin Clark to outlast defending national champion LSU. In the other game that night, UConn blew a 12-point third-quarter lead to allow the University of Southern California to catch up. But former Hopkins High School star Paige Bueckers finished a brilliant 28-point performance to lead the UConn Huskies to a 80-73 victory over USC.

As hype goes, nothing in men’s or women’s basketball can approach the Clark-Bueckers showdown between two of the best guards ever in women’s basketball.

The upset-filled men’s and women’s basketball have been exceptional, and they had to be to coax us to suspend our evaluation of the Frozen Four for another week. Warm up the TV and fill the popcorn bowls with fresh stuff, and enjoy yourselves.

No, none of the six Minnesota teams reached the Frozen Four, so we’ll have to be content to bask in the glow of holding the Frozen Four in our “State of Hockey” palace on West Seventh Street in St. Paul. We just have to wait a week.

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