And then, finally, there were 4.
The NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four begins tonight. Two surprising mid-majors and then two traditional powerhouses will meet this evening in Houston, and the respective winners will move on to the National Championship game Monday night for a chance at their One Shining Moment (the 1995 version is my favorite).
The new face of college basketball is staring us in the face – one side of the brackets, two mid-majors with juniors and seniors who aren’t talented enough for the pros but who know how to play together vs. two major programs with freshman and sophomores eager to run to the pros.
Tonight's games are just that, a pair of fundamental, hard working, inspired mid-major teams with bright young coaches; and a pair of traditional powers from big conferences with established coaches and rosters full of McDonald's All-Americans. How U.C.L.A. might fit in this paradigm will be the subject of many future keystrokes on BN. But as for tonight...
The former duo play first (6pm EDT). In a matchup that almost no one saw coming: the Virginia Commonwealth Rams (28-11), the 11th seed from the Southwest Region face the the Butler Bulldogs (27-9), the 8th seed from the Southeast Region. Despite their seed, it's only a minor upset for Butler to be here, as they reached the final game last season, taking champion Duke down to the final possession. Butler got back to the F4 by beating Old Dominion, Pitt, Wisconsin, and Florida (and we will always love them for that). For VCU, this is a Cinderella run like no other. VCU had never even won an NCAA tournament game before eliminating *$c (and we will always love them for that) in the first round play-in. Apparently, they really liked the feeling, because the haven't stopped winning, since rolling past Georgetown, Purdue, Florida St, and Kansas to reach the Final Four. Butler's Brad Stevens and VCU's Shaka Smart are two of the hottest young coaches in America, and both can scheme and motivate their teams to overachieving heights.
So far, VCU has been lights-out shooting (ah, that must be nice) and will need to count on continued hot shooting from the 3 point line, but I think Stevens' defense will be too disciplined to let VCU get many good looks. The VCU press has created havoc with the opponents, but I think Stevens will be ready for that, too. Butler should have an advantage on the inside with Matt Howard, and Stevens will find a way to capitalize on that. I pick Butler to advance to Monday in an entertaining and fundamentally beautiful game between two good teams.
The second game (approx 8:45 EDT) features a pair of powerhouse programs from powerhouse conferences: the Kentucky Wildcats (29-8), the #4 seed in the East Region, and the University of Connecticut Huskies (30-9), the #3 seed from the West Region. This is Kentucky's 14th F4 appearance, and the first in 13 years ago for the storied school, though many of those stories aren't very pretty. Head Coach John Calipari has led two other teams to the Final Four, but there are little stars in the record books next to them as both appearances were subsequently vacated by the NCAA. And now, Calipari is looking at the three-peat. Start your timers and enjoy things now, Wildcat fans. The UConn men are the second best basketball program on their own campus, but have certainly had their fair share of success, too. Head Coach Jim Calhoun is in his 4th FF and has 2 titles in the first three tries.
Coach Cal features his 2011 edition of one-and-dones with 3 freshmen starting. UConn actually had no early departures for the NBA last season and returns an experienced lineup (ah, that must be nice). The feature matchup in this game will be UK's Brandon Knight vs UConn's Kemba Walker, both upcoming lottery picks. In what should be a run-and-gun, highlight reel, drive and kick for 3, look-at-me game, I think UConn's balance and Walker's consistency will be too much to UK's ups and downs and reliance on outside shooting. Let's pick UConn in an entertaining showcase of talents by a bunch of talented athletes, and also to give the guys at the asterisk factory a break sometime about 3 years in the future.
But who cares what I think? This is your National Semi-Final open thread. Have at it.