Guest Article BY: Jay-Hoosier
It started with 345 teams. Four are left. Since November, this college basketball season has been marked by parity. A lot of teams were good. None were elite. That parity has continued to March and produced one of the most exciting Elite 8’s in recent memory. All four games went down to the wire before Kentucky, Connecticut, Butler, and Virginia Commonwealth prevailed.
This will be the first final four EVER with no #1 or #2 seeds. The sum of the seeds for the final four teams is also the highest in history. UK(4) + UConn(3) + Butler(8) + VCU(11) = 26. The previous high was 2000 with 22. The lowest seed ever to play in the national title game is an 8 seed (UCLA in 1980 and Villanova in 1985). Butler or VCU will tie or break that record. All in all, it is going to be an exciting final weekend (and Monday) of the season. Let’s take a look at the Final Four match-ups.
Butler vs. VCU
The 8th seeded Butler Bulldogs will be wearing the home whites (reserved for the higher seeded team) when they take on 11th seeded VCU in the first game Saturday night (6:09 pm ET tip). This marks the first time Butler is the betting favorite all tournament. Yes, you read that correctly. Butler opened as a 2.5 point favorite and the line quickly moved to 3 (and remained at 3 as of last check).
This game will be marked by contrasting styles. Butler will try to limit positions and keep the game in the 60s. VCU is going to run at every opportunity. Whichever team succeeds in playing their style more often should have a huge advantage. Butler successfully slowed down a Florida team in the previous round. VCU has shown it can run teams out of the gym (see the Purdue game) or grind out a win against really good defense (Florida State had the #1 defense in the country).
Both teams play aggressive man-to-man defense. Butler has been able to disrupt two great players in the last two rounds in Jon Leuer from Wisconsin (1 for 12) and Chandler Parsons (2 for 9) from Florida. VCU’s mix of full-court press and extended half-court defense forced Kansas into a horrific shooting game in the Elite 8 (I’m pretty sure Kansas just missed another three).
Most of all, this game will be about individual match-ups. VCU’s Jamie Skeen (26 points and 10 boards against Kansas) vs. Butler’s Matt Howard in the post. Butler’s best scorer, Sheldon Mack, vs. VCU’s best defender, Ed Nixon. VCU’s blazing point guard, Joey Rodriguez (averaging 7.6 assists per game in the tournament) vs. Butler’s best defender, Ronald Nored. VCU Coach Shaka Smart vs. Butler Coach Brad Stevens.
Butler has the obvious edge in experience while VCU is the more athletic/explosive team. Two of Bill Simmons’ theories are in play with this game. Butler has the Ewing Theory going for them (they lost their best player and are in position to possibly win a championship). VCU has been playing the “No One Believes in Us” card all tournament and will continue to do so after being made the underdog again. I have to go with VCU in this game. They have a chip on their shoulder and are playing with an edge that is rare. They believe they are the best team and are playing like it. VCU has had 3 games (out of 5) in the tournament where they have made at least 12 three pointers. The ability to get out in transition and make open shots gives them the slight edge over a scrappy Butler team. This should be a great game. The Vegas odds on a Butler/VCU national semifinal were something like 140,000 to 1. Now, one of these teams will be playing for the national title.
Kentucky vs. Connecticut
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit something: I despise Kentucky. I grew up in Southern Indiana, right across the Ohio River from Kentucky, so it has long been engrained in me that our neighbors to the south represent everything that is wrong with college basketball. The University of Kentucky has an unmatched history of cheating which was seemingly celebrated when they hired a coach with a history of cheating (John Calipari).
Calipari is the only coach to have vacated final fours with two different programs (UMass and Memphis) but got out of dodge just when the NCAA came a-knocking. In his short time at Kentucky, Calipari has turned the team into an NBA Development League team where the best high school players in the country hang out in Lexington for a year before moving on to play in the NBA. I’ve long said that Indiana is my favorite team, and my second favorite team is the one playing Kentucky. In other words, analyzing this game is like Fox New analyzing the Presidential Election: It is going to be fair and balanced.
UConn gave Kentucky a beating when the teams met in Maui on November 24th but those teams were merely a shadow of the teams that will meet in the second game of the final four. Kentucky, led by three great freshmen, has improved throughout the year. Brandon Knight has already hit two game-winners in the tournament and consistently made shots any time that North Carolina got close in the Elite 8 game. Terrence Jones provides match-up problems for any team with his length, ability to put the ball on the floor, and make outside shots. Doron Lamb and Darius Miller can also hit outside shots.
But, the two players who make Kentucky tick are DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson. Liggins is the glue guy and Kentucky’s best defender. His size allows him to guard multiple positions and he will likely be given the task of guarding Kemba Walker. It will be interesting to see if Liggins’ size can disrupt Walker enough to force the All-American into an off game. Josh “Jorts” Harrellson has really been the surprise of the season for the Wildcats and is a big reason why a team that lost five first-round draft picks finds itself in the final four. His size and attitude got to Jared Sullinger in the Sweet 16 and was too much for the North Carolina interior players in the Elite 8. UConn has the size to deal with Harrellson but they will need to match his toughness and intensity if they want to win.
UConn boasts the best remaining player in the tournament in Kemba Walker. Plain and simple, the guy just makes plays and has a flair for the big moment. If there is a last second shot, you want Kemba Walker taking it. Walker has greatly benefited from the emergence of Jeremy Lamb. Lamb gives UConn a viable second option and does not allow teams to completely key on Walker. If Lamb is making shots, UConn is really tough to beat (Lamb has scored in double figures in the last 9 games, all UConn wins).
UConn coach Jim Calhoun knows how to win the big game too. With his third national title, he would join the likes of Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, and John Wooden as the only coaches ever to win at least three titles. Calhoun has also recently found himself in trouble with the NCAA regarding recruiting violations. So, in Calhoun versus Calipari, neutral fans get to root for their favorite (or least hated) cheater.
Whichever team is victorious in this game will likely be the favorite in the Monday night championship game. After, much internal debate regarding the merits of placing a reverse-jinx on Kentucky, I have to go with my gut. When it comes to the final four, you never want to bet against the team with the best player. That player is Kemba Walker and that team is UConn. Great players win these types of games. And, the good thing for Kentucky is that they don’t have to worry about vacating a national championship in a few years. It’s a win-win.