Monday, March 28, 2011

VCU and Other Final Four Fun

(photo courtesy of

The 2011 Final Four will have its place in history for many reasons:

-It will be the first Final Four without a #1 or #2 seed and just the third without a #1 seed.

-VCU is just the third #11 seed to make the Final Four and the first to win five games on their way there (okay, so that one is cheating). The problem for the Rams? Both LSU (1986) and George Mason (2006) lost by double digits.

-#11 VCU and #8 Butler combine for the highest seed total to play in a Final Four game and this will be just the second Final Four with two teams seeded #8 or lower (and the first with one of those seeds being in the double-digits).

-The combined seeds of the four teams remaining is 26. The previous high was 21 in 2000, the only other time two #8 seeds or lower made it this far.

For those who think those stats are crazy, anybody who's watched most of these games understands how competitive and wild they have been. And each team has gotten here in their own special way.

#11 VCU has been torrid from beyond the arc, hitting 12 or more three-pointers in three of their five tournament games. They shot 12-for-25 against #1 Kansas yesterday, the team with the nation's best three-point field goal defense. Those were also the first three times all season the Rams hit more than 11 threes in a game.

The main hero from this tournament for VCU isn't a player, but coach Shaka Smart. He's pressed every right button and must be an expert motivator to get these kids believing they can beat anybody on any given night. If he isn't receiving offers from power-conference schools in the next year or two, something is wrong. Smart can coach.

#8 Butler is in their second straight Final Four for the same reason as the last one: Defense. Butler didn't allow a team to score 60 on them in last year's tournament until Duke scored 61 in the title game. While they have already allowed 60 twice in this year's tourney, one was an overtime game against Florida (that was tied at 60) and the other was against #1 seed Pittsburgh. I never saw this coming without lottery pick Gordon Hayward, but Brad Stevens is another great young coach.

#4 Kentucky came in hot on a six-game win streak, including three wins over ranked teams (two over Florida). Brandon Knight has struggled in two of the four games, but he also hit the game-winning shot against both Princeton and Ohio State in games where he combined for just 11 points.

Freshmen Knight and Terrence Jones are meshing nicely with veterans DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson, who has more than doubled his season scoring average in four tournament games. As a team, the Wildcats have the deepest talent base of the four remaining teams.

#3 Connecticut has followed up a great run in the Big East tournament with a similar run in the NCAA tournament. Behind the conference's best player in Kemba Walker (sorry, Ben Hansbrough), the Huskies head into the Final Four as the favorite to win it all. I said before the tournament that Walker is the type of player that can carry a team to a title and outside of Knight, Walker has probably been the tournament's best clutch player. And he hasn't had any off nights.

Jeremy Lamb is also enjoying a breakout since the Big East tournament began, scoring in double figures in all nine postseason games. He's averaging 16 points per game during that span compared to just over 11 on the season. When Walker leaves for the NBA next year, expect Lamb to take a big leap forward like Walker did this season.

If the top bracket on ESPN is to be believed, VCU will beat Kentucky in the championship game. The guy got the whole Final Four right, six of the Elite Eight and 28 out of 32 right in the first round. That's astonishing, but I don't think VCU will beat Kentucky. If they do, someone needs to hire this guy. Or get him to buy them lottery tickets.

I'm predicting Connecticut to beat Kentucky. The Wildcats are deeper (which shows how shallow the Huskies rotation is) but there's something about this Connecticut team this season. They started the season unranked and disrespected, won the Maui Invitational (over Kentucky) and have been ranked ever since. Walker reminds me of another undersized Big East guard who could fill it up on any night and in the NBA, I think he'll be a poor man's Allen Iverson.

All the signs point to Butler locking down defensively to limit VCU's effectiveness from long range, but the same signs were there against Kansas and the Rams led by double digits in the first half. I'm taking VCU to go to the title game, previous history of #11's be damned. If the five-day layoff hurts any team the most though, it's the Rams.

Now on to the title game. As one of the Morris brothers said to VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez before yesterday's game, "The run ends here." Whichever brother said it was wrong about that game, but Walker, Lamb and the Huskies will cut down the nets in Houston to cap an unbelievable postseason run.

It's funny to think some people thought UConn could lose as early as the first round because they were "tired" from winning five games in five days in the Big East tournament. With six days off between games, I don't think that's an issue anymore. It never really was in the first place.

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