Unfamiliar faces -- and North Carolina -- make up a very different Final Four

South Carolina's Frank Martin embraced his mother in an endless and tearful hug.

Gonzaga's Mark Few jumped from a ladder and into to the arms of his Poland-born big man.

Oregon's Dana Altman soaked up a Gatorade bath.

North Carolina's Roy Williams? He grabbed a Final Four hat and ambled along, just as he did last year, just as he has done eight other times in his career. The national semifinals isn't a birthright to anyone, of course, but it is at least a fairly regular destination for the Tar Heels.

Which makes the blue blood the outlier in this college basketball quartet, the only team that can truly act like it has been there.

"Tears of joy and makes your heart warm to like 350 degrees Celsius or something,'' Few said after his team beat Xavier. "Maybe Fahrenheit. It's been a while since I was in class.''

Few can be forgiven his scientific snafu. His time outside the classroom is a blip compared to Gonzaga's wait for a Final Four.

Never (Gonzaga), never (South Carolina), might as well have been never (Oregon) and North Carolina -- that's the simple way of looking at this Final Four.

South Carolina, a team that finished third in a maligned SEC, hadn't won an NCAA tournament game in 44 years until nine days ago. Now the Gamecocks improbably have strung together four in a row, riding a defensive assault to the program's first Final Four. A school considered football first, second and last gathered up a head of steam and a legion of rowdy fans at the tourney's relocated first round in Greenville, South Carolina, and rolled all the way through the East Region final in New York.

Gonzaga, a one-time Cinderella turned best-team-to-never-make-the-national-semifinals, has been looking forward to this moment for nearly two decades. The Bulldogs' inability to make the final weekend turned them into the game's most lovable lightning rod, a squad appreciated for its overreaching success but questioned for its underachieving results.

The NCAA hosted its first hoops championship in 1939 in Evanston, Illinois; ironically, at Northwestern, the school that until this year couldn't get to the party it first hosted. Eight teams reluctantly agreed to participate in the newfangled tourney. The Webfoots, nicknamed the "Tall Firs," won the championship. We know them as the Oregon Ducks. They've spent the past 78 years designing new uniforms and cornering the Nike market, and were the only school that had a booster (Phil Knight) climb the ladder to snip a piece of the net. But cool unis do not necessarily beget basketball results. Oregon's drought had stretched the entire history of the sport.

"1939 was a long time ago,'' Altman said in a Captain Obvious moment after the Ducks upset No. 1 seed Kansas to move on.

So comparatively, 366 days is not all that long ago. That's all it has been since the Tar Heels last won an Elite Eight game. But their wait also felt endless, considering what happened in Houston a year ago, when Villanova's Kris Jenkins broke North Carolina's heart with a buzzer-beater to win the national title.

"That was our ultimate goal, to win the championship,'' North Carolina senior Isaiah Hicks said after his team earned a second shot Sunday. "We were four seconds away from that. Just to see your dream taken away right in front of you, that's all the motivation you need. Of course, nobody likes to lose, but that one, when you're right there, all of us, we just need that second chance.''

Normally, North Carolina's revenge tour would be the story of this Final Four, and perhaps as the week stretches on, it will turn out that way. This is their record 20th Final Four, after all. But right now, it's about the newbies, the fresh faces who will try to navigate a world they can't even comprehend.

The Final Four is an unwieldy beast for a novice, the games played on an elevated court that more closely resembles a boxing ring, inside a dome normally reserved for football crowds.

Gonzaga's arena seats 6,000.

The Bulldogs will play in front of 70,000 on Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

It is not something you can comprehend until you see it, as the South Carolina players admitted after they ousted Florida.

"I can't even imagine it,''PJ Doziersaid. "I have no idea what to expect.''

He's not alone. This NCAA tournament has not gone as anyone predicted.

The anticipated Elite Eight showdown between Villanova and Duke in Madison Square Garden evaporated in the first weekend. The Lonzo Ball Show devolved into a turnover disaster against Kentucky. Kansas looked like a juggernaut -- until it couldn't score against Oregon. And then Sunday night, in a Kentucky-North Carolina game featuring millions of dollars' worth of future NBA talent, Luke Maye walked off the hero.

So it makes sense that this is where we finish, in a Final Four where one of these things is not like the other.

In a pure basketball-in-the-moment sense, though, this odd quartet actually adds up. Three of the four might be new to the party, but no one got here uninvited.

South Carolina carved a path through Duke and Baylor. Gonzaga chewed up darling Northwestern and less darling West Virginia. Oregon ousted the feel-good story of March, Michigan, and then beat Kansas in Kansas City, which is only slightly easier than winning at Allen Fieldhouse. While all that was happening, North Carolina emerged by beating another blue blood, Kentucky, to reach the season's final weekend.

"The same thing everybody else says -- we're ecstatic we're still having press conferences,'' Williams said after his win. "Couldn't think of anything I'd rather be doing right now.''

Same goes for South Carolina.

And Gonzaga.

And Oregon.

Maybe these teams aren't so different after all.

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