By Ken Davis
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/).