April 2, 2011
HOUSTON (AP) - All the top seeds have gone home, all the "smart money" is down the tubes and millions of brackets are in the trash.
Even in the unpredictable world of March Madness, this is a Final Four nobody could have imagined.
Kentucky, Connecticut, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth fill out a Final Four that, by most ways of looking at it, is the most unimaginable in the history of an NCAA tournament that has never lacked surprises.
In one game in Houston on Saturday, No. 4 seed Kentucky will play No. 3 Connecticut. In the other, it will be No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth against No. 8 Butler.
"Seeds are so overrated," Kansas coach Bill Self said, stating the obvious after his top-seeded team lost 71-61 to VCU on Sunday. "It's about matchups. And their players could play for us any day."
Kentucky emerged from the weekend as the new Vegas favorite, at 8-5. VCU is 7-1 - the longshot again, though nowhere near the 2,500-1 pick it was back when the season started.
Indeed, as this year's tournament proves, there has never been such a razor-thin difference between the supposed power teams and the ones they're supposed to beat.
This Final Four includes:
-Four teams with a combined 37 losses and a combined winning percentage of .755, second lowest since 1985.
-Four teams whose combined seeding equals 26, breaking the record of 22 in 2000.
-Not a single No. 1 seed for only the third time since seeding began in 1979.
-Not a single No. 1 or No. 2 for the first time.
No surprise then, that out of the 5.9 million entries in the ESPN bracket contest, only two had this foursome making its way to Houston. Did they go on a hunch? Or just tie on a blindfold and throw darts at the bracket?
"Once again, we felt like nobody really thought we could win going into the game," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "But these guys believed we could win. They knew we could win. And we talked before the game about how nobody else really matters, what they think. And that's our theme throughout the NCAA tournament since we were selected."
The Rams (28-11) are the third No. 11 seed to make the Final Four and the first since George Mason in 2006, also of the Colonial Athletic Association. But they're the first team that will need to win seven games - not the usual six - to make it all the way through the NCAA tournament. They were one of the last at-large teams to make the newfangled 68-team field. They've traveled the road from the "First Four" - an extra, opening round that was added as part of the NCAA's new $10.8 billion TV deal - to the Final Four.
In Butler (27-9), last year's runner-up, VCU will play a team that slumped through big chunks of the season, suffering from the predictable hangover after what was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Final Four last year.
That one was played in downtown Indianapolis, a scant six miles from their campus.
This one will be 1,036 miles away in Reliant Stadium. But the message is the same. The Bulldogs are once again proving that all it takes is good players and coaching - not a conference, a big school or a massive arena - to compete on the biggest stage in college sports.
"I think it's about believing, and we want them to believe," said coach Brad Stevens, whose home gym is Hinkle Fieldhouse, the place where the classic hardwood movie 'Hoosiers' was filmed. "You know people say 'This is unbelievable.' But when you know these guys, it's not unbelievable. It's believable."
Though UConn and Kentucky each struggled at times this season, they've had Final Four pedigrees for years (decades when it comes to the Wildcats) and they lived up to them this month.
Connecticut was 9-9 in the BIG EAST this season, but won an unprecedented five games in five days in the conference tournament to win its first big trophy of March. The big question was whether the Huskies, led by one of the nation's best players in Kemba Walker, would have enough energy to keep things going in the NCAAs.
Short answer: Yes.
They held off Arizona 65-63 on Saturday and are in the Final Four for the fourth time since 1999.
"I've been fortunate over 39 years to have a lot of teams do a lot of different things," coach Jim Calhoun said, "but never could I imagine the team winning nine games in tournament play in 19 days."
To win No. 10, UConn (30-9) must beat Kentucky, a team led by three freshmen that might, nonetheless, have its biggest star on the bench. Coach John Calipari joined Rick Pitino as the only coaches to lead three different programs to the Final Four.
Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones are the three freshmen who helped the Wildcats (29-8) get to the Final Four for the first time since their 1998 national title team.
This was a team that lost four out of seven earlier this season and looked every bit as close to the tournament bubble as a national championship. Since then, the Wildcats have won 10 straight, including the 76-69 win over North Carolina on Sunday.
"We got Kentucky back," senior forward Josh Harrelson said. "A lot of people really didn't think we would be the team we are. We know we struggled early in the season, lost a couple of close games that we should have won. And you know, we really pulled it together as a team. And, you know, we're back now."