Houston — It’s the most unlikely Final Four since the NCAA Tournament expanded in 1985. We have a No. 3 seed that finished in a three-way tie for ninth place in its own league (UConn), a No. 4 seed that went 2–6 on the road in its conference (Kentucky), a No. 8 seed that at one point this season lost consecutive games to Milwaukee, Valparaiso and Youngstown State (Butler), and, finally, a No. 11 seed that lost its final four conference games of the regular season, three of which were at home (VCU).
So who’s going to advance to the National Championships game on Monday night? Who knows. At this point, all we can do if offer an educated guess. Here’s mine:
Game 1 — Butler over VCU
My first thought was to pick Butler. The Bulldogs are a seasoned group that has proven itself in the NCAA Tournament over the past two seasons. They advanced to this point by beating four very good teams — Old Dominion, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Florida. Those were my thoughts earlier in the week. Then, I switched over to the VCU camp. The Rams, after all, didn’t just beat some good teams to get to the Final Four — they beat them thoroughly. Any team that is good enough to beat Georgetown and Purdue by 18 points and Kansas by 10 is surely good enough to beat Butler. Right? The answer, of course, is yes, but only if this team continues to play at the same extraordinarily high level. Only if this team continues to bury the 3-point shot at such a high rate and continues to rebound the ball so effectively and continues to play defense with such tenacity. The guess here is that VCU will be unable to maintain the same level in all three phases. It’s been a magical ride for the Rams, but it will end Saturday night. I’m back with the Butler Bulldogs.
Game 2 — Kentucky over UConn
At some point late in the season, Kentucky developed into a complete basketball team. Sure, John Calipari would prefer to have more depth and another low-post scorer would be welcomed, but this team that we all thought was flawed earlier in the season looks pretty darn good now. With Josh Harrellson producing around the basket (14.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg in the NCAA Tournament) and veteran wing players DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller playing at a high level to complement the talented freshmen, there’s not a lot this team isn’t doing well. Connecticut, however, will have the best player on the floor in junior guard Kemba Walker. The Huskies will need big a night from Walker, but he must be efficient as well. Kentucky will gladly allow Walker to score 30 points if he needs 25 shots to get his points. UConn must get production from its role players, and big man Alex Oriakhi must provide some scoring around the basket. In four NCAA games, he has scored a total of 25 points. That won’t get it done Saturday night. This figures to be a thrilling game played at a high level. Take the team with the better roster over the team with the best player.
Houston — We’re told this is one of the more improbable National Championship games in the history of the sport. We have two teams that lost a combined 18 games in the regular season — the most ever in a title game. We have a No. 3 seed that went .500 in the Big East and a No. 8 seed that lost five games in the 11th-rated conference, according to the RPI.
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe this is what we should have expected. Not back in late January or early February, when UConn and Butler were struggling, both looking like teams that would have trouble winning a game in the NCAA Tournament — if they even got that far. But maybe we should have expected this matchup when the Field of 68 was announced. By that time, both of these clubs had hit their stride, with UConn winning five games in five nights en route to an amazing Big East title and Butler capturing the Horizon League Tournament title on the home court of top seed Milwaukee with surprising ease, 59–44.
Should we be surprised when the best player in America, UConn guard Kemba Walker, has his team in the national title game? Should we be surprised when the defending national runner-up is back in the title game, even with the loss of its best player, Gordon Hayward.
We are surprised, but we shouldn’t be.
So who is going to win? Well, the boys in Vegas have made UConn a 3.5-point favorite. But don’t expect that to concern Butler, who was an underdog in its first four NCAA Tournament games. The Bulldogs have grown accustomed to winning on the biggest stage in the sport, with an amazing 10–1 record in the NCAA Tournament over the last two years. Butler isn’t overly talented, but the Bulldogs do have some very good players — most notably point guard Shelvin Mack and do-everything forward Matt Howard — and they have a great coach in Brad Stevens. Butler’s strength is its defense. The Bulldogs’ five opponents in the NCAA Tournament have combined to shoot 41.8 percent from the field, and that includes Pitt’s 26-of-46 performance in the second round.
UConn can play a little defense, as well. In the national semifinal, the Huskies held Kentucky to 33.9 percent shooting overall (33.3 percent form 3-point range) en route to a season-low 55 points. Star point guard Brandon Knight, who had been fantastic in the NCAA Tournament, converted only 6-of-23 from the field.
A key Monday night will be the play of each team’s respective star point guards, Mack for Butler and Walker for UConn. Walker scored a game-high 18 points against Kentucky, but he was not his usual, sensational self. He needed 15 shots to get his 18 points, and hit only 1-of-5 from three. The Huskies will be very tough to beat if Walker scores more than 20 points and does so in an efficient manner.
Butler will need Mack to duplicate his sterling effort against VCU, when he scored 24 points on 11 shots, thanks in part to 5-of-6 3-point shooting. But also key for the Bulldogs will be to keep Howard out of foul trouble. Fouls were an issue vs. VCU, but Howard still managed to stay on the court for 31 minutes. If he is forced to spend significant chunks of the game on the bench, Butler will be in trouble.
Prediction: UConn is favored for a reason. From a pure talent standpoint, the Huskies are probably the better team. But Butler is more experienced and is getting big-time performances from its best players.
1. There are four great point guards in the Final Four. Which one is your favorite?
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch): I don’t want to over-think this one. I’ve got to go with Kemba Walker, a first-team All-American who has been playing at an amazingly high level for the past few weeks. Joey Rodriguez at VCU, Shelvin Mack at Butler and Brandon Knight at Kentucky are all very, very good, but Walker is the best.
Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden): As talented, and clutch, as Brandon Knight has been and as entertaining as Joey Rodriguez can be, how do you not go with Kemba Walker? The step-back buzzer beater against Pitt in the Big East Tournament was a thing of beauty. He is the best scorer of the bunch and has been simply unbeatable (12-0) in any tournament he has played in this season.
Nathan Rush: I’ve been a fan of VCU’s Joey Rodriguez since he, Chandler Parsons and Nick Calathes were the state title-winning “Three Amigos” of Orlando’s Lake Howell High. Florida’s Billy Donovan snatched up Parsons and Calathes, while former Gators assistant-turned-VCU coach Anthony Grant (who is now at Alabama) was able to sign Rodriguez to the Rams. J-Rod has been as valuable as any player in this year’s NCAA Tournament — averaging 10.2 points, 7.6 assists (compared to only 2.0 turnovers), 2.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals over five games. It’s good to finally see Rodriguez getting the national exposure he deserves. He’s my favorite point guard in the Final Four.
2. What is more of a surprise: Butler in its second straight Final Four or VCU making the Final Four?
Mitch: Well, I am more surprised that VCU is in the Final Four, because the Rams were a No. 11 seed and had lost their last four regular-season games in the CAA. But I think Butler making it the Final Four for the second straight season is a bigger story. It is very difficult for make the Final Four once. Just ask BYU, Missouri and Alabama, three schools with over 20 trips to the NCAA Tournament without a Final Four appearance. Butler has now done it two times in a row. It’s truly one of the most amazing stories in college basketball over the past two decades.
Braden: VCU is more surprising in my mind. They have played one more game than everyone else as one of the last teams to make it into the bracket. It really isn’t a shock that a team that played for the national title last season made it back to the Final Four the following year.
Nathan: VCU making the Final Four as a controversial “First Four” at-large bid is definitely more surprising than Butler advancing to the Final Four for the second straight season. The Bulldogs lost Gordon Hayward to the NBA Draft — where he went No. 9 overall to the Jazz — but returned a brilliant coach (Brad Stevens), blue-collar big man (Matt Howard) and clutch lead guard (Shelvin Mack). The Rams, however, lost five of their last eight games before making the NCAA Tournament field of 68. Since then, Shaka Smart’s team has knocked off USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas. That’s Shaka-ing to me.
3. Name a role player who will have to step up for his team to win two games in Houston.
Mitch: Kentucky’s Josh Harrellson is one guy who will need to play well, but I will go with Butler freshman Khyle Marshall. He plays about 20 minutes, gives the Bulldogs a little bit of scoring (7.7 ppg in the NCAA Tournament) and some quality work on the boards (6.7 rpg). Marshall, who signed with Butler before last year’s amazing run to the Final Four, is the type of under-the-radar recruit who has put the Bulldogs in position to compete on a national level.
Braden: Anyone named Lamb. Whichever Lamb shows up in the Kentucky vs. UConn game will win the national title. Both UK’s Doron and UConn’s Jeremy can shoot from long range, both are solid passers and both can handle the ball.
Nathan: Kentucky freshman Doron Lamb undoubtedly will shadow Connecticut’s Kemba Walker for much of the UK-UConn showdown. And the Oak Hill product from New York City must play the type of lockdown defense he played for key stretches against North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes in the Elite Eight victory. Offensively, Lamb must continue to knock down open shots from long range — where he shot 48.1 percent (65-of-135) this year, including 62.5 percent (5-of-8) in the NCAA Tournament. Lamb must play great defense and hit big shots under pressure in order for the Cats to advance to the title game and, ultimately, cut down the nets in Houston.
4. Should the NCAA reseed the teams in the Final Four?
Mitch: No. Bad idea. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Braden: Great question. The answer to that question 99 out of 100 times is absolutely not. This would be the only year that even raises the issue. An 8 vs. 11 match-up has never happened in the Final Four and may never happen again. It’s unfortunate that the national title will be determined on Saturday in the Kentucky-UConn game, but those are the cards basketball fans — and CBS — have been dealt. The best we can hope for on Monday night is that Butler will give us another great effort.
Nathan: Absolutely not. All region champs are created equal at this time of year. Any team that wins four straight games (or five, in VCU’s case) in the Big Dance has proven it belongs. These are the four No. 1 seeds, in my opinion. Plus, reseeding could backfire. If UK and UConn were split up, they could both lose. Then, there would be a Butler-VCU title game. As it stands, at least one member of basketball royalty will be playing an underdog for the crown on Monday night in Houston.
5. Who will win it all?
Mitch: Right now, I think Kentucky is the best team. If the Cats continue to get solid play from Josh Harrellson, a perceived weakness is a strength. Kentucky is getting great play from its veteran wing players Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins, and the entire team is hitting big shots in the big moments.
Braden: The experience and will power of Kemba Walker will give the Huskies the slight edge over Kentucky. However, something tells me that this is John Calapari’s year. Every time North Carolina got to within one or two points, Brandon Knight would knock down a huge shot. These Cats can shoot the ball better than any of Cal’s past teams, and it appears the coach has finally learned that you have to run half-court sets to win a championship. Even if the banner is pulled down in three years.
Nathan: Kentucky over Butler. This is not John Calipari’s most talented collection of players but it may be the best “team” he’s ever had, not to mention the best coaching job he’s ever done. The emergence of senior junior college transfer Josh “Jorts” Harrellson — who stepped up when the NCAA suspended five-star freshman Enes Kanter for the season — has provided championship-caliber heart and soul for the Cats, while juniors DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller add athleticism and experience to a core trio of freshmen — point guard Brandon Knight, wingman Doron Lamb and forward Terrence Jones — who are playing with poise beyond their years. Butler is no easy out but if Coach Cal can avoid a repeat of his Memphis-Kansas Monday night meltdown — when he let a championship slip through his fingers — UK will raise the eighth banner in school history.
When Jim Calhoun embarked on his career as a NCAA Division I basketball coach at Northeastern in 1972, he was 30 years old — even younger than Butler’s Brad Stevens or VCU’s Shaka Smart as they head to the 2011 Final Four.
Fourteen seasons at Northeastern gave Calhoun an understanding of the whole mid-major, David vs. Goliath issue, but the hurdles were much different back then for the young coach from Boston.
“Making our way through, we always felt the elite were the elite and just to play them was great, never mind beating them,” said Calhoun, who is now 68 and leading Connecticut to a Final Four for the fourth time since 1999. “Now, everybody can beat everybody. I think it’s good for the sport.”
Calhoun can say that without any trepidation, because his team is still alive and just two wins away from UConn’s third national championship. The Huskies still fall on the elite side, along with Kentucky, their semifinal opponent. But Kansas, Georgetown and Purdue actually feel the pain because they all lost to VCU. And the same goes for Florida, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh, who were Butler’s big-name victims in this tournament.
Since tournament seeding began in 1979, there has never been a Final Four like this. The school banners hanging over the festivities at Reliant Stadium in Houston will have a much different look and not just because Butler and VCU have crashed the power conference party.
The absence of either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed is unprecedented. With the benefit of time, we may look back on this Final Four as the one that changed all our previous perceptions.
“The teams that play the best basketball in the tournament are the teams that have a chance to win the tournament,” Stevens said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or how big your football program is or how much money is in your athletic department.
“It’s about a group of kids coming together, five guys playing on the court at once, hopefully believing together. … There’s no politics in this. There’s a 40-minute basketball game. That’s the beautiful thing about it.”
Calhoun says it is the cumulative effect of players leaving early for the NBA.
“This year we noticed,” Calhoun said. “I said all year there are some terrific teams. Pitt, Ohio State, Kansas … but there may not be a great team. It there’s not a great team, it opens up the field for everybody else. That’s what happened.”
Who needs further expansion? With 68-teams, better players and better coaches at all levels, the formula seems almost perfect.
Without a doubt, that is the top storyline for this Final Four. Here’s the rest of our Top 10:
Lighting A Fire
VCU has made history, going from the “First Four” to the Final Four in this first tournament with a 68-team field. No other team in history has had to win five games to reach the Final Four. And this is a team with 11 losses. The Rams were 3-5 in February. On March 1, Smart found a new way to light a fire under his team. Smart gathered his players together, took the month of February out of his desk calendar, used a lighter and set it on fire. “The guys watched it burn,” Smart said. “That was symbolic for us, putting the month of February behind us.” Said Calhoun: “I love it.”
Calipari Was Hired For This
Tubby Smith couldn’t please the fans in Big Blue Nation. The Billy Gillispie Era was a disaster and lasted two seasons. On April 1, 2009, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart introduced John Calipari as the coach of the Wildcats. His critics call him Coach Vacate because Final Four appearances with Massachusetts and Memphis have been stricken from the NCAA record book because of rules violations. But Wildcat fans love Coach Cal for taking Kentucky to the Promised Land for the first time since the Comeback Kids of 1998. “I’m young enough that I am not worried about my legacy,” Coach Cal said. “I am trying to win one more game.”
Take The Money And …
VCU athletic director Norwood Teague says he’s going to keep Smart as coach of the Rams. How much cash will that take? Smart has gotten smarter and hotter as a coaching prospect as the Rams moved on in the tournament. With his aggressive and attractive style of play, you just know a school like NC State is ready to tangle big dollars in front of Smart’s eyes. Of course, Brad Stevens signed an extension after Butler’s big season and first Final Four last year. “There are so many factors that go into it,” Stevens said. “You have to figure out what’s best for your family, are you happy where you are, do you feel empowered when you go to work, do you like the people you work with, do you like the city you live in, and everything else.”
This stat worked its way through media rooms across the country over the weekend. Stevens, 34, and Smart, 33, combined are younger than Calhoun, 68. “My two sons plus my problem child [Calipari],” Calhoun said during a conference call Monday.
Cal vs. Calhoun
That “problem child” reference brings us to the prime-time coaching matchup in the semifinal round. Calipari and Calhoun are anything but strangers. They went at each other hard and strong when Calipari coached at UMass. Both were trying to mark their territory. The schools were old rivals from the Yankee Conference (and before), and the coaches hated each other. The fire doesn’t burn quite as strong any more, but there is still a feeling of dislike. They have met a few times since Cal left Amherst, most recently in Maui when UConn won. The bottom line is their personalities are so similar there’s no way they could get along. “John always has been an aggressive, incredible personality who has developed into a terrific basketball coach,” Calhoun said. Calipari said he would be shocked if Calhoun ever retires. “He’s as good as they get,” Cal said of the UConn coach.
It seems fitting that UConn point guard Kemba Walker will close out his college basketball career at the Final Four. Walker began his season of dominance at the Maui Invitational in November, which now seems like a lifetime ago. He had a little shooting slump when everyone started to doubt him, then he took the young Huskies on his back for this remarkable postseason run. Five wins in five days at the Big East Tournament. Now four more wins in the NCAA, to make it nine in a row. This is UConn’s second Final Four in three years, but last season was an NIT disaster, and the cloud of the NCAA investigation into recruiting violations hung over the Huskies all season. UConn’s Final Four run is almost as amazing as that of VCU or Butler.
This isn’t Indy
Butler was the home team at the Final Four in Indianapolis last year. It was remarkable. The Final Four hadn’t seen anything like it since Danny Manning and his Miracles at Kansas won the 1988 championship in Kansas City, Mo., and Kemper Arena. But Lucas Oil Stadium was on a whole different scale. Duke had to win the national championship playing a road game. “Nothing will be like Indy. Indy was crazy,” Stevens said. “If there's 30,000 people [at open practice] they're going to try to be getting whoever else's autographs are there in Houston. It's not going to be for our guys. ... But trust me, we will play anywhere they send us and we are thrilled to go to Houston."
Get the point
Walker, named to first team Associated Press All-America team Monday, may be the star of this Final Four. But the other three teams have talented point guards who direct the traffic, call the signals and provide the leadership. Can you remember a Final Four team that didn’t have that? The Butler-VCU game will match Shelvin Mack of Butler against Joey Rodriguez of VCU. Mack wasn’t highly recruited, but he fits the Butler system perfectly. Rodriquez is a senior who never backs down. His distribution to his teammates was a key in the win over Kansas. And Walker will be going against freshman Brandon Knight, the Most Outstanding Player in the East Regional and the king of the buzzer beater in this tournament. The Kentucky media guide says Knight chose the Wildcats over UConn, Florida, Kansas, Miami and Syracuse. It should say about 300 other schools wanted him. “If I spent all my time on the kids we lost, I’d fantasize and we would have won a lot of championships because we’ve lost a lot of good players,” Calhoun said. “I’m more interested in the kids we get.”
Fans say they love the Cinderella teams. But do they really? We will find out Saturday when the semifinals play out on CBS. Butler vs. VCU first and then the bluebloods, Kentucky vs. UConn. The ratings for this tournament have been off the charts so far, but will the viewers embrace this Final Four? By this time, the Cinderellas have usually turned to pumpkins. “It’s going to be fine,” Mike Aresco, CBS Sports executive vice president, told USA Today. Aresco likes Butler as a “big story” and the two young coaches. He didn’t mention Calhoun’s “problem child” but you can be sure the ratings will be high in Kentucky.
Ken Davis is the author of Basketball Vault books covering the history of the University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. Both are available through the publisher
(http://www.whitmanvaultbooks.com/) and autographed copies are available at Ken's web page (http://kendavis55.wordpress.com/).