By Mark Thomson
Raise your hand if you had 11-seed VCU in your Final Four. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? According to espn.com, if your bracket is like 99.9% of everyone else’s, you didn’t have them winning the Southwest region. Likewise, you probably didn’t think that 8-seed Butler could replicate last year, as only .6% of brackets had them coming out of the Southeast. More people had faith in 3-seed Connecticut (23.1% thought they’d make it this far) and 4-seed Kentucky (8%), but it would be a huge stretch to say that any of these teams were favored to make it to Houston. These surprises mean that all bets are off heading into this weekend’s games. I’ll attempt to sort through all of the chaos and create some sort of order from which rational predictions for the national semifinals can be made. Hopefully these picks will go better than my Pittsburgh 24 Green Bay 20 Super Bowl prediction from a while back. Game #1: Butler vs. VCU-5:09 CST on Saturday, Apr. 2. It’s not a stretch to say that this is the most unlikely Final Four matchup ever. Both teams weren’t expected to survive the first weekend (VCU wasn’t even expected to make it to the tournament at all). Sure, Butler made the National Championship game last year (losing a heartbreaker to Duke on a rimmed out Gordon Hayward half-court shot). That being said, after losing Hayward to the NBA, they struggled quite a bit during the first two thirds of this season. At one point, they suffered through a three game losing streak. After losing to Horizon League bottom-feeder Youngstown State on Feb. 3 to drop their record to 14-9, they’ve merely rattled off 13 wins in a row (including two wins in the Horizon League tournament to win the conference) and made the Final Four. In the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs have won their four games by 13 points combined. Against 9-seed Old Dominion in their opening game, they needed a Matt Howard tip-in at the buzzer to escape with a 60-58 win. Their next game, they prevailed in one of the craziest basketball games I have ever witnessed (which featured two fouls in the waning moments of the game) against 1-seed Pittsburgh, 71-70. After outplaying 4-seed Wisconsin 61-54 in their Elite Eight showdown, they faced 2-seed Florida with a Final Four berth on the line. This game didn’t disappoint, as both teams played with the tenacity expected for a game of such significance. However, Butler was able to come back from a second half double-digit deficit to win 74-71 in overtime. With this victory, the Bulldogs booked their ticket to Houston.VCU’s story is even more remarkable given they finished 4th in the Colonial Athletic Association and failed to win their conference tournament. Although the Rams had two good wins against UCLA on Nov. 26 and then-#25 George Mason on Mar. 6, the rest of their résumé was relatively unimpressive. However, despite what appeared to be insufficient qualifications, VCU was given a gift by the NCAA selection committee and given a berth in the first ever First Four. At the time, many college basketball experts felt that teams such as Virginia Tech or Colorado were more deserving of this opportunity to make the field of 64. However, the Rams’ performance in the tournament has silenced these critics. Playing against USC to make the actual tournament, VCU pulled away in the second half (eventually winning 59-46) for the right to play 6-seed Georgetown in the second round. Against the Hoyas, the Rams built an 11-point halftime lead and never looked back, winning 74-56. Although many teams would be happy with one bracket-busting win, Coach Shaka Smart didn’t allow VCU to be complacent in their next game against 3-seed Purdue and watched his team dominate the Boilermakers, 94-76. With this win, the basketball world knew that this Rams team was for real. They continued their run the following week, beating 10-seed Florida State 72-71 in overtime and faced a showdown with 1-seed Kansas two days later. The Jayhawks, a consensus top two team in the tournament, were heavily favored against the Rams. However, VCU took the lead for good with 14:02 left in the first half and survived a furious run by Kansas to win 71-61. For those keeping track at home, in this tournament the Rams have beaten teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big-10, ACC, and Big-12. Not only that, but four out of five of their wins were by double digits. Who says mid-majors can’t play with the big boys?In short, that’s how these two teams have gotten to this matchup. We have one team (Butler) who any other year would be the Cinderella of the tournament, while the other (VCU) is tied for the lowest seed ever of a Final Four Team. Both teams will have millions of college basketball fans rooting for them, as everyone appreciates a good underdog story (except maybe Yankees fans, but they don’t have hearts so their opinions don’t count). How is one to differentiate between these two teams that have overcome so much? In terms of performance this tournament, there’s little question that the Rams have been more impressive. Butler has barely escaped with their victories, whereas VCU has largely dominated their opponents. Furthermore, the overall quality of teams that VCU has defeated has been better. Their victory over Kansas was probably the best win any team has had in the tournament. Shaka Smart has his players playing out of their collective minds. However, at the end of the day, I feel like Butler is better suited to pull this game out. They have considerably more experience than VCU, given that they have been in this position before. When the Bulldogs have been tested in the tournament, they’ve fought back and prevailed at the end of the day. VCU hasn’t been challenged nearly as much, and I question their ability to suddenly acquire the ability to gut out victories in the Final Four. Butler has Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack, both of whom are playing phenomenal basketball right now. Their coach, Brad Stevens, is probably the hottest coach in America. The team hasn’t lost since he started wearing glasses on the bench. At the end of the day, the glasses more than anything are why I don’t think they are going to lose. But seriously, I think Butler’s going to their second consecutive final. Game #2: Kentucky vs. Connecticut-7:49 CST on Saturday, Apr. 2.Both of these teams have far more impressive pedigrees, both historically and currently. Obviously, they’re both in one of the big six major conferences (the SEC for Kentucky, the Big East for UConn). They’ve spent almost all of the season in the Top-25 and have two legendary coaches in John Calipari (Kentucky) and Jim Calhoun (UConn). They both have incredible talent, with freshman sensation Brandon Knight leading the Wildcats and national player of the year candidate Kemba Walker leading the Huskies. Both teams have had to overcome some adversity to get to this point. Kentucky wasn’t supposed to be this good this year. After losing a whopping five players to the first round of the NBA draft last year, it was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Tell that to Calipari. He’s coached the team to a 29-8 record and a #11 record in the AP Poll at the end of the regular season. Knight has established himself as a prime time player in the mold of previous Calipari protégé’s Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, and John Wall. In addition, they won the SEC Championship, overwhelming Florida 70-54 on Mar. 13. The Wildcats were given a 4-seed in the East region and faced off against Ivy League Champion and 13-seed Princeton in the first round. Kentucky needed a game clinching lay-up by Knight (his only basket of the game) to pull out a 59-57 victory. Paired up against 5-seed West Virginia with a spot in the Sweet Sixteen at stake, Kentucky (led by Knight’s 30 points) came out with a 71-63 victory. The Wildcats were expected to win both of these games but had a much more difficult task ahead against 1-seed Ohio State. Many, myself included, believed that the Buckeyes were the best and most complete team in the country. However, the Wildcats
refused to give into prevailing wisdom and completed a 62-60 victory. Knight contributed to his rapidly expanding legacy yet again by sinking Ohio State with a game-winning 15-footer with five seconds remaining. In their next game, with a spot in the Final Four on the line, Kentucky defeated 2-seed North Carolina 76-69 to earn a trip to Houston. Their upcoming opponent, Connecticut, was also a lot better than initially advertised at the beginning of the season. Not even ranked in preseason polls, the Huskies rattled off 10 straight non-conference victories to start their season (including a 84-67 victory against Kentucky). However, as soon as Big East play rolled around, UConn saw their luck take a turn for the worse. Although they had wins against two top-10 teams in their first five games of the season, they found beating the elite teams in their conference to be a much more difficult task. The Huskies lost six times to ranked opponents in the Big East en route to a 9-9 conference record. They were rewarded with a 9-seed in the league tournament but won four straight games in four consecutive games to take the Big East Championship. Consequently, the selection committee was faced with a difficult decision. How should the team be seeded? Was the true identity of the team the one that took college basketball by storm at the beginning of the season and won the toughest conference in America? Or was it the one that couldn’t beat good teams during the middle of the season? The committee decided to split the difference and gave the Huskies a 3-seed. In their first game of the tournament, UConn wasn’t tested against 14-seed Bucknell and won 81-52. They defeated Big East rival and 6-seed Cincinnati 69-58 in their next game to set up a matchup against 2-seed San Diego State. Against the Aztecs, the Huskies relied on Walker’s 36 points to win 74-67. Only 5-seed Arizona was between UConn and the Final Four. In a tightly-contested game, the Huskies came out with a 65-63 victory. Walker scored 20 points, and his team survived two three-point attempts by the Wildcats in the game’s final seconds. Both teams have saved their best basketball for the end of the season. They are in the middle of sizeable winning streaks, having won their conference tournaments in addition to four NCAA tournament games. So who has this edge between red-hot teams? I’m going to have to go with the Huskies on this one. They have the best player in college basketball in Walker. I believe that Calhoun is a better coach than Calipari. Although both teams are very different now from what they were in November, I still feel as if UConn’s dominating victory on Nov. 24 has to count for something. The Wildcats’ season will end at the hands of the Huskies.