Well we are just a short time away from the Final Four and this year’s tournament has absolutely been one to behold. Some people supported a move to the “field of 68” while others scoffed at the idea. No one can scoff anymore; because of those extra 4 slots that were awarded, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) earned a bid and from there they have parlayed it into the school’s first ever Final Four trip. Then there is last years ‘Cinderella’ (Butler Bulldogs) who were a half-court shot away from cutting down the nets in 2010, returning to the Final Four this season and not wanting to be the runner-up. Those are the two teams most people would not have had in their office pool going to Houston for a chance at a National Championship. Those two teams will meet on Saturday in the first game so one of them is guaranteed to at least play for the National Title on Monday night. On the other side of the bracket are two familiar names to the big stage………the Kentucky Wildcats and the UCONN Huskies.
The Wildcats are back to the Final Four for the 1st time since 1998 and they are being led by three freshmen. The Huskies were just a part of the Final Four a couple of years ago but they were unable to come away with the big prize after being beat in the semi-finals. Sixty-four teams have come and gone and only four remain; by the time the dust clears in Houston on Monday, April 4th only one team will remain to hold the crown of the 2010 – 2011 National Championship. There have been many great moments of this tournament but there truly will only be one “shining moment” in just a few days. With that being stated, let me examine Saturday’s first match-up and pick a winner.
Saturday’s first game will pit the VCU Rams (28-11) against the Butler Bulldogs (27-9) in a game that few are talking about. This game will be very interesting to see because of the contrast in styles between both teams. VCU is as athletic of a team as you will see and arguably they can play with either UK or UCONN in an up and down game. The Rams will fast-break at any given opportunity and even at times when the opportunity doesn’t appear to be there. The Rams also will shoot the three-ball (just ask Kansas) with no conscious and they have 7 players who currently shoot better than 33% from 3 pt. range with 3 of the 7 shooting better than 40%.The Rams have absolutely been in control during their tournament run, one most experts said they did not deserve to be in. VCU was assigned to one of the four “play in games” and they wasted little if any time letting the rest of the field no they meant business. After knocking off USC 59-46 in that 1st game, the Rams were off to face Georgetown. They controlled that game from beginning to end in handing the Hoyas one of their most lopsided defeats of the season (74-56). Next up was a meeting with Big 10 regular season runner-up, the Purdue Boilermakers; much like the previous two games, the Rams wasted little time in displaying an aggressive defensive plan in which they would press and play tenacious half-court defense while executing their offensive plan almost to perfection……..the end result, VCU 94 – Purdue 76.
Then came the defensive minded but often offensively inept Florida St. Seminoles to cross the path of the Rams. This was the one nail-biter every championship team seems to have on their way to a title and the Rams used a well executed inbounds play to garner a 72-71 victory. While the Rams have been great thus far, nothing could have prepared the college basketball world for what VCU would do to #1 seeded (Southwest Region) Kansas Jayhawks. In what had to be one of the best 1st half performances of the tournament, VCU used the 3 pt shot and a rabid defense to jump out to a huge halftime lead and then would hold off a late Jayhawk charge to win 71-61 to advance to its first ever Final Four. Versatile F Jamie Skeen is the Ram’s leading scorer at 15.4 ppg and he shoots 40% from behind the arc. He also grabs about 7.4 rebounds per game. G Bradford Burgess is second on the squad in scoring averaging a shade over 14 ppg while shooting about 43% from behind the arc; he also averages about 6 rebounds a game. VCU also gets double-digit scoring from G Brandon Rozzell (11.8 ppg) and PG Joey Rodriguez (10.5 ppg and 5 assist a game). The Rams will play as many as 10 different players to keep the starters fresh and out of foul trouble.
As for the Rams opponent, the Butler Bulldogs were here last season and they are back this time to finish what they started last season. The Bulldogs are kind of the odd-ball of the Final Four as they get it done on the defensive end first, while scoring is secondary. The Bulldog got to this point by doing what they do best; make the opposition look bad on offense. At one point during the regular season, most thought Butler would miss out on the NCAA Tournament all together as they were lagging in about 4th or 5th within the Horizon Conference. But a late season surge that culminated with Butler winning 9 straight games including a run to their conference championship and the automatic bid that comes with it. Butler was even dismissed by some as being a potential casualty to lose its first tourney game this season but they would have none of that. They went out and scrapped and fought with a game Old Dominion ball club and they needed a Matt Howard lay in at the buzzer to pull out a 60-58 victory.
Next up for Butler was date with the #1 seed in the Southeast Region, the Pitt Panthers. In what very easily could have been the game of the tournament, at least up to this point, the Bulldogs hung right in there with the Big East regular season champs and fought them tooth and nail down the stretch. On a night when Butler seem to be the best team, the game would sway from one side to the other in the last seconds due to a pair of untimely fouls, first by Butler’s Shelvin Mack and then the game ender by Nasir Robinson of Pitt and the next thing you know, Butler is advancing with a 71-70 heart stopping win. After Pitt, it was time to deal with a team that plays the way Butler play, the University of Wisconsin. It didn’t take long to see that the Badgers left their offense in the locker room as Butler was out o the gates early with a double-digit lead. The Badgers were never in the game and only a late flurry of points brought the game back to a more respectable score; nonetheless, Butler moved on with a 61-54 victory.
Then last weekend, the Bulldogs did battle with the Region’s #2 seed, the Florida Gators. It took an extra 5 minutes (Overtime) but Butler made the plays down the stretch (both in regulation and OT) and Florida was left on wine shy of getting Coach Donovan back to the Final Four…Butler 74 – Florida 71. Butler is not a deep team (will probably go 7 or 8 deep) but they have plenty of experience in Lexington, KY’s own Shelvin Mack (15.9 ppg, 3.6 assist and 4.3 reb) and F / C Matt Howard who averages 16.7 ppg and a shade of 7.5 boards per). These two were on last year’s team which came with a whisker of beating Duke for the championship. These two guys are the unquestioned leaders of this squad and they both will leave it all out on the court, win or lose. No other Bulldog averages double figures so Butler does not fair well if they get behind. So the pace of the game will be key for Butler to pull of a victory.
My thought on this game is one of mixed emotions; both coaches Shaka Smart (VCU) and Brad Stevens (Butler) are two of the brightest, young coaches in the college game today. Both are dealing with an enormous amount success in such a short-period and yet they both have their own approach to how coach and yet their approach to the sudden lime-light is the same…..staying humble. Fans can not just concentrate on Kentucky and UCONN because whichever one of these teams makes it to Monday night, they will not be easily defeated. I like what the future holds for both coaches and their programs but the here and now is Saturday in Reliant Stadium. I believe depth and scoring could ultimately be Butler’s downfall in this one but they will not go easily. I think it will be VCU 74 – Butler 63.