The NCAA Tournament has been exciting and unpredictable, as of yet. The chaos continued through this weekend with continued upsets and some familiar stories.
The little guys stood up and were accounted for again. The Butler Bulldogs and VCU Rams. Two teams from small programs with young coaches whose stocks are rising with every passing game in Brad Stevens (34) and Shaka Smart (33), beat a couple more giants on their way to Final Four berths this weekend and will now go head to head. The other semifinal has two prestigious programs: the Connecticut Huskies and Kentucky Wildcats. Not to mention two of the most well known and successful coaches of the last twenty years with Jim Calhoun (68) and John Calipari (52).
Stevens’ Bulldogs who are now in their second consecutive NCAA semifinal beat out the guy who used to be the hot, young coach when they took down Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators. The Gators are also the last team to make it to two Final Fours in a row. Donovan’s squad won back to back titles in 2006-2007. The Bulldogs, of course, were beaten by Duke in the closing seconds of last years classic championship game. After losing superstar Gordon Hayward to the NBA Draft after the 2010 season, the Bulldogs had barely gotten through a tough season and tournament to make it to Houston but are now in familiar territory. As strange as it feels to say, Butler’s players have more Final Four experience than any team left in the tourney. And Stevens doesn’t seem ready to back down after his performance head to head against Coach K in last year’s final. Don’t expect Butler to lose their heads under the big lights in Houston.
VCU is doing their best Butler 2010 impression this year as they follow a similar script. VCU’s Shaka Smart is this year’s Bread Stevens. Despite their different styles, Shaka and his counterpart have both beaten some giants to get here. However, VCU has truly been the most dominant team in the tournament, as of yet, and has drummed top ranked teams by double digits. The next two games will show, however, if VCU can continue to win games from behind the arc. They have been lights out from 3 point land throughout the tournament and have used their range to jump out to big leads against Kansas and their other opponents. The Rams have also won more games in this tournament than any other team after playing in the first four to earn their tourney berth. The fact is that right now VCU is a scary, unpredictable team that is beating up up on usual tourney bullies and no one wants to face.
The Connecticut Huskies are led by their Hall of Fame Coach Jim Calhoun, who already has two national titles under his belt, and National Player of the Year nominee Kemba Walker, who went to the Final Four the last time the Huskies made it and lost to Michigan State in 2009. Calhoun started off the season with headlines of NCAA infractions and penalties. Apparently, after surviving that scandal, he managed to keep his poise throughout the season. UConn had some trouble in the Big East this year, only going .500, but were perfect with big wins out of conference including an impressive upset in the finals of the Maui Invitational against their current counterpart, Kentucky. UConn was not supposed to make it this far. But, then again, they weren’t supposed to win in Maui. With a clutch shooter like Walker and a cool, veteran coach in Calhoun, the Huskies are capable of anything. They have gotten to the semifinals by winning some nail-biters, and we will see if they can continue to eke out wins in the last minutes and give Calhoun his third championship (Coach K leads active coaches with four titles).
The Kentucky Wildcats are also a surprise team in this final and have faced the toughest road to get here. Coach John Calipari has done it again, getting his third team to the Final Four (Memphis, UMass), however, his first two visits ended unsuccessfully and were then completely nullified by NCAA investigations into rules infractions at both schools. Everyone knows that there may be no better recruiter than Calipari in the country, and he is a great in-game coach, as well. But his reputation has been overshadowed by one year and done players and NCAA violations. So the question is… is Calipari ready to truly step into the top echelon of college coaches? He could step into that exclusive group with a national title. Perhaps more importantly, he would join Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino (whose shadow is always lurking nearby at Louisville), and Tubby Smith as another legendary championship coach for one of the most storied programs in NCAA basketball history. Helping Calipari to outrun these shadows is a group with a blend of freshman talent (per usual with Calipari squads) including guard Brandon Knight and some surprising upperclassmen with stable post presence Josh Harrelson being the biggest story. There is a lot at stake here for Calipari’s legacy, and we will see if he can make the jump this time.
Kentucky is the Vegas favorite to win the 2011 National Championship. But Vegas hasn’t done too well, as of yet, in this year’s tournament. The brackets have long been burned and destroyed. There’s no need for them anymore with this Final Four grouping. The only thing left to do is watch and enjoy. After all of the upsets and chaos leading us to Houston, we shouldn’t have any problem keeping our jaws from hitting the floor. If this tournament has taught us anything, its that there will be no more surprises because, at this point, anybody can win it, and the end of the 2011 season promises to be another classic.
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