To call this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship “madness” would be something of an understatement. I feel a strong desire to quote Jerry Garcia and say, “what a long, strange trip it’s been,” but rest assured I’ll resist the temptation. While most installments make the claim, this year’s tournament actually is different from all the rest. What makes this year unequivocally, empirically unique is the advent of the “First Four.”
But never fear. This year’s tournament was not just some crazy science experiment devoid of the traditional excitement and trappings many have come to love and expect while watching the tournament. It was not a heartless, detached, empirical collection of data. Oh no. This year had plenty of excitement.
Add the expansion of the television coverage to include TNT, TBS and TruTV (nope, I’m not kidding) to traditional host CBS, and you have a recipe for Madness Mainstream. It was entirely possible to watch each and every game in glorious HD without resorting to squinting at your tiny little computer screen. And watch them I did.
There was a lot of chatter this year between the expert analysts and the teams they claimed “shouldn’t have made it.” Before the first round, there was plenty of banter coming from the UAB and VCU camps claiming they would let their play on the courts do their talking, proving they belonged. But VCU and UAB weren’t the only ones who felt they had something to prove.
After Butler’s success last season, making a dramatic run to the final game, the mid-majors seemed confident and poised and motivated to follow-up with successes of their own. Five of the little guys made it to the Sweet 16, two of whom progressed.
Not a single No. 1 seed reached the Final Four. Not even a No. 2 seed was fortunate enough to make the trip to Houston. Kansas was the only team with a number one or two seed to even make it to a regional final.
On the flipside, we have not one, but two Cinderellas who don’t feel like hanging up their dancing shoes just yet.
The anatomy of this year’s Final Four is so surprising that only two people correctly picked the teams on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge. This year ESPN received just under six million entries. Two out of 6 million. Note: None of the “Experts” picked it right.
The VCU Rams were widely criticized as a team that perhaps should not have been selected to the field at all. There were more deserving teams such as Alabama and Colorado that were snubbed in favor of the Richmond, Va.-based Rams.
VCU was beaten down on Selection Sunday.They were told they did not deserve to be in the tournament or they weren’t good enough, skilled enough, or athletic enough to play with the big boys. They were forced to play an extra game. They were sent to the other side of the country. They were given an No. 11 seed. Not exactly a glowing endorsement. Only two No. 11 seeds had ever advanced to the Final Four before (something VCU had never done), and neither of their predecessors made it to the final game.
But VCU has separated themselves from that company. LSU was the first no. 11 seed to reach the final weekend in 1986, winning their four games by an average of 4.3 points. Fellow Colonial Athletic Association member George Mason also knocked out four opponents in 2006 in dramatic fashion, winning the hearts of a nation by just 6.3 points per victory, including an overtime thriller against No.1-seed UConn by a slim two points.
VCU, on the other hand, has played—and won—an extra game. And really only one game has been close, the 72-71 overtime victory against Florida State. Even with the one-point victory, the Rams have beaten their opponents by an average of 12 points per game.
How have they done it? That’s probably something only they could answer. But a fiery and intelligent young coach, a quick and scrappy senior point guard, deadly three-point shooting, an unquenchable desire and a giant chip on your shoulder seems to be a pretty good guess at their recipe.
For those cold-hearted grinches who don’t like a good Cinderella story, this year has also seen the return of a couple of powerhouses to the Final Four. Connecticut reaches the Final Four for the second time in three years. But for Kentucky, it’s been a much longer, increasingly more desperate drought. Big Blue has not been to the Final Four since 1998—the last time they won a title. That’s an eternity for a basketball power like Kentucky.
It has not been a perfect run for either team. UConn started the season unranked, not even receiving a single vote. But they quickly changed that. The Huskies won the Maui Invitational, which included wins versus Wichita State, Michigan State and none other than the Wildcats of Kentucky. They vaulted all the way from unranked to Top 10. UConn finished their non-conference schedule 12-0, but struggled through the Big East. They finished with a pedestrian 9-9 conference record. This meant they had to struggle through the Big East tournament and win five games in five days to win. No sweat.
The Huskies rode this momentum all the way to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a fateful march to the Final Four.
Kentucky began the season after exporting perhaps the greatest collection of raw talent any team has ever seen. They lost the No.1 NBA draft pick, the No. 4 draft pick and three other first-rounders. Coach John Calipari brought in a good, if not great, stable of talent this year. They had another star-laden recruiting class lined up for the 2012 season. This was supposed to be the wait-and-see year. That’s not how it worked out. Rather than depending on his classic “let my talent do all the talking” strategy that has allowed him to create incredible regular season teams that fold in the postseason, Calipari did something a little different this year—he coached. He got players that could fit his scheme and run an offense. He got players that would play hard and play together. He got a point guard who passed first and shot second. He got a team that played with heart instead of detached talent. And oh, what a difference a year makes.
This Kentucky team has had their struggles.
They lost their “stud” freshman Enes Kanter who was ruled permanently ineligible. They couldn’t win on the road. They couldn’t win the close one. But like UConn, they were able to gel at just the right time. The Cats hits their stride in the SEC Tournament, running through the competition and burying conference foe Florida in the finals
to capture its one billionth SEC title (or 27th, but it feels like a billion).
No doubt the Big Blue Faithful will travel in droves to see their beloved Wildcats in the Final Four. They’ve been starved for some serious basketball love for a while now.
The Butler, in the Final Four, with the revolver
Okay, so Butler probably won’t bring a gun. But they do have plenty of firepower.
Everyone seems to be caught up in the magic of VCU’s dream run or the return of the juggernauts. But don’t overlook the Bulldogs. You may not remember it, but they were just a shot away from winning the tournament last year. In fact, they are the only Final Four team to make a repeat appearance. And they’ve done it in dramatic fashion.
It seems like Butler has won every game on a buzzer beater. Well, that’s not very far from the truth. They beat Old Dominion in the opener on a Matt Howard buzzer beater. I don’t even know how to describe the insanity that was the Pitt game—two fouls in the final second, with each team hitting free throws to go ahead. They tried to make it easy on themselves by jumping on Wisconsin early, before the pesky Badgers made a late run. Butler was able to hold them off for a cushy seven-point victory. No. 2-seed Florida had Butler down by 11 with under 10 seconds to go, when the Bulldogs finally made their push. Butler sent the game into overtime and pulled out a 74- 71 victory, escaping a couple of last-second (albeit questionable) shot attempts from the Gators.
Sheldon Mack and Matt Howard led the Bulldogs back to the Final Four and set their sights on being the first team since Florida to make back-to-back championship games. Not an easy feat. Young gun coach Brad Stevens continues to rally his troops with a perfect balance of poise and charisma, authority and camaraderie.
Ronald Nored, who attended Homewood High School, adds a little hometown flavor for those of us in the Magic City.
Last Four Out
It all comes down to this. One Weekend.
Two Games. Four Teams. One Dream.
No matter how the national semifinals shape up, we are poised for a David vs. Goliath match up in the finals. VCU and Butler ride the wave of destiny and see who is the better swimmer. UConn and Kentucky look to recapture former glories and squash the little guy in the process. If there is one thing certain about this year’s tournament, we can expect the unexpected.
Tune in to see how the Madness unfolds.
Saturday (11) VCU vs. (8) Butler—5:09 pm on CBS (4) Kentucky vs. (3) UConn—7:49 pm on CBS
Monday Butler/VCU vs. UConn/Kentucky—TBD on CBS Houston, we have Tip-Off. (I couldn’t resist).
John Easterling writes about sports for Birmingham Weekly. He is also the author of our X’s & O’s blog. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.