Anyone who tries to tell you they saw THIS Final Four coming is obviously a liar. Tonight, the most unlikely Final Four in college basketball history begins with the most unlikely matchup in college basketball history, when Virginia Commonwealth faces Butler for an opportunity to play for the title.
If “most unlikely in history” sounds like hyperbole, it really isn’t. The combined seeds in this year’s Final Four completely shatter the previous high set in 2006 when George Mason’s unlikely run as a #11 instantly edged it towards the top. Add in #4 LSU, #3 Florida and #2 UCLA, and the total was a then-record 20. This year? Butler versus VCU nearly outdoes that total on their by themselves.
VCU becomes just the third #11 seed to ever make the Final Four, and Butler’s repeat appearance was even more unlikely this season as a #8 seed (they were a #5 last year). Even UConn and Kentucky, despite the obvious name recognition, were not expected to still be standing. With these two college basketball blue bloods arriving with a #3 and #4 seed respectively, this year’s cumulative total climbs to a nearly-unthinkable 26.
The seeds may be high, but don’t let that number fool you into believing that we aren’t in store for another incredible night of basketball. The undercard of VCU v. Butler, followed by the glamour of UConn v. Kentucky guarantees that Monday night will provide a storybook-like David versus Goliath for the National Title. But which David and which Goliath will we see?
On to tonight’s Free Final Four Picks…
TODAY’S FREE NCAA TOURNEY PICKS FOR THE FINAL FOUR:
#11 Virginia Commonwealth v. #8 Butler -2.5
Virginia Commonwealth has mowed down an incredible path on their amazing journey to Houston. Consider that a little over two weeks ago, The Rams were loudly hailed and targeted as the one team with a Dance ticket that didn’t deserve one. In fact, they had to “upset” USC in the “play-in” game to even earn a slot on the Field of 64 Bracket. Ironically, if you would have selected VCU as a Final Four team on most major website’s bracket challenges, you would have gotten BOTH they and USC, as the first game wasn’t even available to pick!
The Rams dusted off USC from the Pac-10, Georgetown from the Big East, Purdue from the Big Ten, Florida State of the ACC and then Kansas from the Big Twelve. IF they could get past Butler tonight and then meet and defeat Kentucky in the title game, they will have beaten a team from EVERY BCS conference in the same NCAA Tournament. That stat kind of makes your head spin, right?
VCU has gotten to this point on two major factors: one, they have defended with incredible intensity and have seemingly out-hustled their way to every loose ball throughout the Tourney. And secondly, they have absolutely shot the lights out for five straight games.
Shooting garners headlines, but the defense has been even bigger. The Rams have allowed just 62 points a game, five below their season average (and they are doing it against obviously better competition), and allowing just 42% shooting. In the Kansas game, they were even better, holding the Jayhawks to just 35%.
The Rams have never been shy about letting it fly from behind the arc. They attempted over 850 three point attempts this season. However, they have shot it with far greater accuracy in the NCAA Tournament; shooting over 44% from distance. That is nearly six points higher than their regular season average. In fact, if they HAD shot this accurately in the regular season, they would have had the highest three point shooting percentage in the entire nation.
There are two important points in that statistic. The first is that the Rams are hot and playing fantastic. The second, and perhaps more important thing to take away; they might have been playing slightly over their heads for the last two weeks, One has to wonder when they will inevitably cool off.
Butler plays the type of aggressive perimeter-pressuring defense to do just that. Butler is holding teams to 59.2 ppg in the Tourney, including a defensive clinic they put on against the far bigger Wisconsin Badgers (John Leuer was 3 of 16 in that game, and Jordan Taylor wasn’t much better for the first 39 minutes before hitting some garbage time threes to make the score look more respectable).
Expect the Bulldogs to make it more difficult for Joey Rodriguez to dribble around at will and create those open looks from behind the arc.
Butler is so solid fundamentally and incredibly poised. They have good size with Smith and Howard (who feels like he has won a dozen tournament games on last second baskets and free-throws) and tremendous defensive guards in Nored and Van Zant. However, the steam in the Bulldog’s engine is point guard Shelvin Mack. Mack, along with the nightcap’s Brandon Knight and Kemba Walker, has been the best point guards in the nation the last three weeks.
I like Butler and Mack to end the storybook run of VCU, winning and advancing to the Final, as well as covering the 2 point spread.
#4 Kentucky -2 v. #3 Connecticut
Whenever any team plays their way to the Final Four, their respective coaches garner a lot of attention. However the mountains of praise that have flowed Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart’s way has been considerably different than the attention that has followed Jim Calhoun and Coach Cal this week.
Both have had their fair share of “incidents” and close brushes, if not outright sanctions levied, with the NCAA in recent years. Be that as it may, you won’t find too many coaches more favorably equipped to handle the spotlight of the Final Four better than these two. Their skill and poise will prove to be a huge asset for both young teams tonight.
Kemba Walker, the only real grizzled veteran on the young Huskie squad has been incredible all season long – and has continued his stellar play into March. Walker’s 23.9 ppg have been impressive, but perhaps more important than his points have been his 4.5 assists. Walker’s willingness to share the ball, most notably with freshman emerging-star Jeremy Lamb, has been a huge catalyst to UConn’s Big East Tourney title and Final Four appearance. The two clicking like they are gives UConn the best backcourt in Houston this weekend.
Kentucky has been living dangerously, but it seems to suit the 2011 rebirth of the “Cardiac Cats” just fine. Freshman Brandon Knight, like his counterpart Kemba Walker, has been his teams leading scorer and assist man in the Tourney. While Knight’s 17.2 ppg is considerably lower, he does have the advantage in one category; buzzer beating heroics.
Knight already has won two games on the final possession; against Princeton in Round One and against Ohio State (when trailing by 1) in the Sweet Sixteen upset. The key to the game tonight will be how well he can match Kemba, not only in scoring, but in controlling the flow and tempo of the game.
He may not be as well-known, but I think Brandon Knight has the game to go toe-to-toe with Walker all night long. The ace in the hole for the Wildcats is the ability to put their defensive specialist, SEC defensive player of the year DeAndre Liggins on Walker to try and frustrate him. Liggins may not be quite as quick (not many in the country are), but has a significant advantage in terms of length and strength.
The tipping point for me is Kentucky’s Terrance Jones. No one on the Huskie roster compares to the future lottery pick power/small forward of UK. Jones has been overshadowed a bit by Knight in the NCAA Tournament, but was Kentucky’s best all-around player for the entire season. He gives the Wildcats a versatile second scoring option inside and out that UConn doesn’t have the personnel to counter.
I think that is the difference tonight, and what will get the Wildcats to the National Championship game on Monday night.