Final Four to Remember

Posted: March 30, 2011 in NCAA

The NCAA marquee tournament has finally come down to the name itself and like every year it has not disappointed. Well that is to say in entertainment value, millions of brackets have been busted since the early rounds but the games we’ve seen, the players we’ve been introduced to and the story lines we have going forward will provide for a spectacular finish to the great NCAA Men’s Division 1 basketball season.

The season like many previous ones started off with your typical schools near the top of the rankings as per a BCS style system where names alone made you a contender for the title. As usual Duke (defending champion then, but soon to be ex) was at the top of that pre season list accompanied by perennial contender Michigan State, Kansas State, Pittsburgh and the Ohio State University. Not far behind of course were Kentucky, North Carolina, Villanova, and Purdue. These schools are always in the mix thanks to storied basketball program status, deep booster pockets and big time TV market exposure thanks to the people at CBS. However it’s tough to argue at the beginning that these teams weren’t favourites to win it all when you look at these schools. They contend every year, they’re big time schools with big time dollars which allow for great coaches, training facilities, celebrity status on campus and usually a newly polished court to play on. That is about where the differences end and the similarities come into play. These are still college aged kids, many in the underclassman years as the best leave early to go make millions on the NBA bypassing any further college life.

What makes the tournament so great is that these giants of college sports (rarely is it limited to basketball or football alone) can get taken down any given day by the schools you’ve rarely or never heard of. VCU, Butler, George Mason, Richmond all made impacts in this years tournament and two of them are set to face off this Saturday and one will play for the title. Could you imagine seeing VCU cut down the final net of the tournament and run off the court hoisting the victor’s trophy? The basketball world would turn upside down, enrolment would sky rocket, and frogs would fall from the sky…well not really but what a story that would be! So here are the remaining survivors of one of the best things in sports today, pro or amateur, and what makes them who they are.

Kentucky
KENTUCKY: Last year was supposed to be the year of the wildcats, new coach John Calipari had a freshman class to remember and one that went on to see 5 of his players taken in the NBA Draft including 2 in the top 5( John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins). Yet he was unable to win the regional final and went home early with arguably the most talent in the league. This year he had one of the best prospects in the nation in PG Brandon Knight and although their Turkish recruit Enes Kanter didn’t pan out (due to playing professional paid basketball in Turkey) they managed to find their way with game winning shots and breakout performances to get to this year’s final four for the first time since winning it all in 1998.

UCONN
UCONN: Like many programs and coaches this year in the NCAA, the University of Connecticut and their head coach Jim Calhoun found themselves amid NCAA violations and scandal at the beginning of this season, granted no penalty was imposed for this season. What happened in the later stages of their season is what makes this team and its run so remarkable. After stumbling in conference play they were forced to play the max schedule for the Big East tournament and wound up playing 5 games (most in the conference tourney) in 5 days, 4 of which were against nationally ranked opponents including the final against Louisville, to win the Big East tournament and secure their place in the big dance. Kemba Walker (national player of the year candidate, tournament MVP and top 3 draft pick to be) has thrilled basketball fans, mostly UCONN, with spectacular plays, long range shooting and an endless supply of energy that would make the energizer bunny look on in amazement.

VCU
Virginia Commonwealth University: VCU who?! This team was one of the inaugural teams to play in the “First Four” this year after plenty of scepticism of their conference play, conference quality and lacklustre season performance. When you look at their competition, their conference tournament and overall season record you could easily make the case for them to not be anywhere near this tournament. In fact almost every panellist, analyst and arm chair quarterback in the country screamed bloody murder when they were given the change to play their way into the tournament this year. Boy are they having trouble getting their foot out of their mouths. Not only did VCU validate their entrance into the tournament but they have made people question why weren’t they given automatic seeding from the start? This is not an 11th seed play-in team they way they have been conducting themselves. Head coach Shaka Smart has to get coach of the year after this tournament performance from his boys. The way he conducts himself in meetings, practices, courtside during the games is exactly what I look for in a coach and reminds me of my own high school coach. He’s never sitting down during games it seems, he’s running alongside the plays in his end of the court communicating with his player’s all the time. He instils confidence in them that no one else had, maybe not even the players themselves. With seniors Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen leading the way who knows what can happen from here on in. They’ve won a regional final and that alone is a championship in its own right, now to wait and see if their happy ending is meant to be.

Butler
Butler: Last year’s darling team that made it all the way within a bounce of winning the national championship is back where they left off and looking as strong as anyone. Senior Matt Howard and Junior Shelvin Mack lead this not so unlikely team into their 2nd consecutive final four under the helm of COY candidate Brad Stevens and they’re not done yet. Early in the season Butler looked to be primed to make another run and finished off a strong season by winning the Horizon League tournament for the third time in the past four years. Their strong play there carried over into the tournament where they have extremely impressive wins over #1 Pitt, #2 Florida and a strong defensive team in Wisconsin after narrowly escaping Old Dominion in the first round. Many thought that after losing Gordon Hayward to the draft last year they had minimal chance of repeating last season’s success. But Stevens has shown that even though he’s one of the youngest coaches in the game he can take a “mid-major” anywhere they want to go and hopefully this year they want to go all the way to the white house.

Once again the tournament comes down to a very competitive Final Four regardless of the rankings associated with the teams left. Although they may not have been the presumed favourites entering the tournament clearly they’re showing that companionship, comradery and a willingness to win are more valuable than a #1 seed.

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