The Final Four spectacle
PHOENIX — This is Oregon's first trip to the Final Four in 78 years.
My hiatus hasn't been that long. I'm a graybeard, but in nearly 42 years in the sports writing profession, I've never covered a Final Four.
I've been fortunate enough to hit most of the items on my sporting bucket list, including the Summer Olympic Games, U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, Super Bowl, NBA Finals, World Series, College Football National Championship Game and College World Series.
But never a Final Four, until Oregon (and Gonzaga) made their way into the grand stage of college basketball.
The Final Four is a spectacle, and I'll try to offer a little flavor of what it's all about with these offerings on what Thursday's media session at University of Phoenix Stadium was all about …
• As I walked into the stadium toward the media room, I noticed the scoreboard was lit up. Operators were doing what amounted to a check, and I saw "South Carolina" on the reader board. Underneath were five players' names, all from Oregon — including Charlie Noebel.
Noebel is a fan favorite in Eugene, a senior walk-on from Irvine, California, who is usually the last one off Dana Altman's bench into a game.
And there was his name up on the board.
When I told Noebel of my discovery a couple of hours later, his face lit up. He hadn't seen it.
"Wish I had," he said. "Maybe it's an omen."
Noebel came to Oregon as a student. As a sophomore, he opted to walk on.
"When I decided to give it a try, I honestly didn't even know if I was going to make the team," said the senior guard, who has scored three points in 31 minutes this season. "The Final Four? It was not even in the back of my head.
"It's crazy to be here. It's an experience I've dreamed of, but didn't think I'd actually get here."
Here you are, Charlie Noebel. And on the stadium scoreboard, at least for a fleeting moment.
• In the Oregon locker room Thursday was the championship trophy from 1939, a remnant of the "Tall Firs." It was the idea of basketball sports information director Greg Walker, or as senior associate athletic director Craig Pintens puts it, "the curator of our trophy."
The trophy was damaged even before it was awarded to the Webfoots back in '39.
"A loose ball went into the stands and knocked the top off the trophy," Pintens said. "For years, it was broken. We glued it together and it sat in a random trophy case, kind of forgotten about."
In 2013, the Ducks brought it to Indianapolis for a loss to Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen.
"After that, we thought, if we're going to parade this thing around, we better get it restored," Pintens said.
The reconditioned trophy was there for the current Ducks to eyeball Thursday.
"I didn't pick it up," guard Dylan Ennis said with a laugh. "Didn't even touch it. Might break something."
• Freshman Payton Pritchard was wide-eyed as he met with the media. Pritchard was the lynchpin to a run of four straight Class 6A championships at West Linn High.
"It's a crazy jump," he said. "Getting here to a Final Four, hopefully I can win another championship. That would be unreal."
Pritchard initially committed to Oklahoma. Then he had a change of heart.
"I wanted to be close to family," he said. "People supported me here. Oregon is what I'm used to. I was close with the coaching staff. I thought I could help this team."
Pritchard's work ethic is notorious.
"I have a love for the game," the Ducks' point guard said. "A lot of people say they work hard, but I truly love being in the gym and putting hours in. I want to be the best. I know it's a process, but I really do want to be the best."
His demeanor on the court?
"Calm, cool, collected," he said. "I'm not going to show a bunch of emotion out there unless it's a really big play. Most of the game, I'm going to stay the same faced."
The Ducks knocked off one of college basketball's traditional powers, Kansas, in the Elite Eight. Next up is another fabled program, North Carolina.
"It's crazy playing this team, but ultimately, it's just another team we're going to have to get through to win a championship," Pritchard said. "Getting to the Final Four is cool, but three years from now, nobody remembers who was in the Final Four. All you remember is who won that championship."
• The players from Oregon and Gonzaga — the two Nike schools at the Final Four — were provided a special treat Wednesday night after arrival in Phoenix. An audience with Kobe Bryant.
"We thought we were going in for a (video) session," Noebel said. "We walked in, there were cameras there, and we knew something was up. They were talking about mentality. They said, 'The king of having that mentality, he's here with us today.' We turned around and saw Kobe walk in."
"It was really cool for Kobe to take time out to talk to us, and get to ask him questions," Pritchard said.
Said Ennis: "What resonated with me was Kobe's message to put your emotions aside. You're going to be around a lot of people. Let them be emotional. You be locked in. That's what I'm going to try to do."
A similar scene was carried out in the Gonzaga meeting room.
"We went into what we thought was a normal (video) session," said Zags guard Nigel Williams-Goss, from Happy Valley. "The Nike reps talked to us and said they had somebody coming in to speak to us who personified what it means to have that winning mentality. Out came Kobe from the back, and we just went crazy.
"He told us to be prepared, and not be nervous. If we've done our homework early and are prepared, there's nothing to be nervous about."
• There may be no player more appreciative of a spot in the Four Four than Ennis, the sixth-year senior who was granted the extra season by the NCAA after missing most of last season with a broken foot.
Ennis started his career at Rice, then transferred to Villanova. Before the 2015-16 season, he transferred again to Oregon, only to watch Villanova win the 2016 NCAA crown.
"I've been through so much through my college career," Ennis told reporters. "I mean, three schools, injuries, your old team wins a national championship while you're out for that year, then coming back for a sixth year — you can't write that.
"I hope to make a documentary of it one day. Anybody want to help me with it? I'm all ears."
• Williams-Goss spent his first two college seasons at Washington, then transferred to Gonzaga and sat out the 2015-16 season. What a success story. The junior point guard earned West Coast Conference Player of the Year honors in leading the Zags to their first Final Four.
"It was one the goals I had written out for myself a year ago when I was sitting out," he said. "Any time you can be player of the year in a conference, especially with so many great players we have in the WCC, is a huge honor. It's a credit to my hard work and dedication."
• At Gonzaga, Williams-Goss joined another Portland-area product, junior Silas Melson from Jefferson High.
"I never played with Nigel, but I saw him and heard a lot about him," Melson said. "He's a year older than me, but he's always been a big-time player. There were rumors we were going to go to high school together, that'd he come in and play at Jefferson as a freshman."
Williams-Goss wound up at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, then at Washington.
"I knew he's always been a pro prospect," Melson said. "I knew he'd bring great attributes to the team — being a leader, being a good point guard.
"As I got to know him a little better when he finally came, I learned his work ethic is out of control. The dude is always in the gym. He's a gym rat. That rubs off on people. That makes me go to the gym more. To have that impact on a team in his first year is a crazy thing to see."
Melson committed to Gonzaga early, before the Ducks showed much interest.
"They came in a little later," 6-4 guard said. "I had my mind made up I was going to Gonzaga. I had interest in Oregon, but after my verbal, (Oregon's interest) got more serious, but I wasn't paying attention. I knew I was going to Gonzaga. I knew that's where my best future would be at. Gonzaga was the place for me."
Melson struggled through the first half of his sophomore season, then came on. This season, he has been a force off the bench, averaging 7.3 points in 24 minutes while shooting a solid .450 from the field, .381 from 3-point range and .840 from the free-throw line. A bounce-back season?
"In a way," he said. "Just the impact I've had on a Final Four team. It makes me feel good about myself. Last year, it took me until February to start playing good basketball. This year has been pretty consistent through the year."
Last summer, Melson said, "I spent a lot of time in the gym. I barely even touched Portland. I was in Spokane all summer with the coaching staff. We tweaked up my shot a little bit. It's good to see the hard work pay off."
Melson said he is very familiar with Pritchard, having gone up against him in AAU ball for several years through high school.
"Seeing him as a key factor makes me happy, because I'm repping Oregon just like he is," Melson said. "That's my state. To have my school and my state represented in the Final Four, that's great."
Williams-Goss said he feels a special camaraderie with Melson.
"Portland is a small enough city where we all support each other," Williams-Goss said. "Especially being on the same team from the same city, it's really cool to have that connection.
"Si has been huge for us just accepting that role, to come in as a lock-down defender, that energy guy off the bench. We trust him to hit a big 3, to go to the hole — we expect him to make plays. He has made a huge contribution for us this year. We wouldn't be here without him."
Melson started four early-season games, then has come off the bench since.
"Anything to help this team, honestly," he said. "If that's what we need, it's what I'm willing to do. With the makeup this team has, it doesn't matter who starts. (Freshman center) Zach Collins is a projected lottery pick this year, and he's coming off the bench. We have a deep, talented team. As long as you're doing your job and being impactful, it helps."
• Williams-Goss is projected to go in the second round of the NBA draft, if he chooses to come out. What will go into that decision?
"I just want to worry about that after the season," he said. "Right now, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We're two games away from a national championship. That's where 100 percent of my focus is."
• Oregon coach Dana Altman was asked why he chose to leave Creighton seven years ago to coach the Ducks. He gave the most complete answer I've heard to that question.
"I was at Creighton for 16 years," Altman said. "I was 52. Our kids were all out of the house. I met with (then-UO athletic director) Pat Kilkenny, and he was very persuasive. He felt like we could get it done at Oregon.
"And I always liked the Pac-12, with the up and down of the league. That's the way we played at Creighton. We pressed a lot and ran. I thought the league fit my style real well. So it was just that time. It was an opportunity, and I thought we could build something. And it's worked out OK."
• Altman and North Carolina coach Roy Williams gave very different answers when asked about recent controversies involving their programs — Altman with the sexual assault charges that resulted in three players being suspended and kicked out of school in 2014, Williams with the academic fraud that rocked North Carolina football and basketball.
"I'm comfortable with the way we handled it," Altman said. "It was three years ago. In retrospect, everything was handled correctly."
Did he encounter negative recruiting as a result?
"Our guys did a great job, our staff did a great job," he said. "We had great support from the university. So it went fairly smooth."
Williams was asked if the past two seasons' success have been therapeutic for him on a personal level after the academic scandal.
"No question, therapeutic is the proper word," he said. "It's just made it a lot better. We've had some junk swirling around that I haven't enjoyed or appreciated or felt good about. But I could lose myself when I went out with those guys.
"These two teams have been very therapeutic for me. They've made me feel good about what I'm doing. They've allowed me to get away from that stuff."
• I sought out Dustin Triano in the Gonzaga locker room. He was tucked away in back, far from his cubicle, which was engulfed with media speaking with center Przemek Karnowksi in the next locker.
I'm pretty sure I was the only reporter to speak with Triano, the son of former Trail Blazers assistant coach Jay Triano. Dustin, a senior guard, plays a similar role as Oregon's Noebel. A walk-on, he has scored 15 points in 37 minutes this season. Coach Mark Few has made it clear Triano is one of his favorites.
"I'm on the scout team," Triano said. "I simulate what other teams are going to do against us. It's been fun. I practice hard every day with those guys. My job is to make them better. I've learned a lot. It's made my basketball knowledge a lot better, and it's made me a better player."
Triano said he has considered a transfer through his time at Gonzaga.
"Like anyone, I want to play in games," he said. "But I've stayed because I like the sense of community, the coaches, my teammates. I didn't want to leave them. We're a close group of guys. I like Spokane, I like the school.
"Everybody wants to compete and be part of the game. But my dad's a coach. Knowing what you do is still important somewhat to the team, you have to look at it that way. It's nice to know I can help make them better daily at practice."
Triano graduated in December with a degree in business marketing. He is working on a masters in business administration, with an eye on a career in coaching.
"This experience has been helpful, being around Coach Few and his staff," he said.
And now Triano finds himself at the Final Four.
"Unbelievable," he said. "Awesome."
• Triano made an interesting observation about Gonzaga and his father's new team.
"Our starting lineup is older than the Suns' starting lineup," he said.
It's true. Gonzaga's first five of Williams-Goss, Karnowski, Jordan Mathews, Johnathan Williams and Josh Perkins averages 22.0 years of age. The Suns' Tyler Uliss, Trevor Booker, T.J. Warren, Marquese Criss and Alex Len average 21.2.
Now that's unbelievable.