Monday, March 28, 2011

Four teams, four cinderella stories

I don't think it would be fair to call the 2011 NCAA Tournament the greatest tournament of all-time. At least not yet.

The first half of the first day was outstanding. There were a couple of classics during the tournament's round of 32. The Sweet 16 featured plenty of intrigue, and the Elite 8 was as good as any Elite 8 since 2005.

But does that make the best NCAA Tournament of all-time?

Who knows. That answer is far too subjective -- and far too reliant on where you happened to attend undergrad -- to ever have a definitive answer. It also depends on your definition of great. There are plenty of fans out there that probably think that the 2008 Final Four, in which all four No. 1 seeds advanced for the first time, was the greatest Final Four of all time. There is an equally large faction that considers this year's Final Four, in which we don't have a No. 1 or No. 2 seed for the first time ever and have the highest total seeds in tournament history, to be the greatest ever.

Arguing greatness is, in the end, pointless. Everyone has a different definition and a precious few will be convinced to change their opinion.

But I think the one thing that we can all agree on is that this NCAA Tournament may be the most unexpected and unconventional. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that each of the four teams in this NCAA Tournament can be considered a cinderella of sorts.

None of the four teams headed to Houston were supposed to here.

East region champ: No. 4 Kentucky

This wasn't supposed to be the year that Kentucky made the Final Four.

The was supposed to be their in between season, with a loaded recruiting class coming to campus next year.

Kentucky sent five players to the first round of the NBA Draft in 2010. Everyone knew that John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins were going to be gone after one season. Big Blue Nation probably got two extra years out of Patrick Patterson, who could have been a lottery pick as a freshman. But two of those first rounders, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton, were surprise departures. Combine those losses with the decision by the NCAA to render Enes Kanter permanently ineligible, and this Kentucky team was left with just a six man rotation.

Three of those players were highly touted freshmen. The other three? DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller, and Josh Harrellson. Liggins and Miller were top 50 recruits that had underperformed in their two seasons in Lexington. Harrellson was a JuCo transfer that was known more for being a fan favorite and the team's resident jokester than an interior force.

And while Big Blue Nation would probably disagree with me, the fact of the matter is that the Wildcats probably deserved their four seed. This is a group that underperformed throughout the regular season, struggling away from Rupp Arena and finishing at 10-6 in a weak SEC.

But something happened in March.

Something clicked.

Josh Harrellson has become a monster in the paint, using every bit of skill in his 6'11", 250 lb frame to become a blue collar workhorse. DeAndre Liggins has developed into a defensive stopper that, at 6'6", is to the Wildcats what Chris Kramer was to Purdue and David Lighty was to Ohio State. Darius Miller has become a knock down shooter with a knack for making a big play.

It feels weird touting Kentucky as an underdog, but that is what they were just three weeks ago. The NCAA Tournament is all about matchups and who gels at the right time.

And this Kentucky team has gelled. They are playing their best basketball of the season, they are getting significant contributions from everyone on the floor, and they are in the Final Four after beating both Ohio State and North Carolina despite not having gotten anything close to their best player's (Terrence Jones) best basketball.

West region champ: No. 3 UConn

Back in May, when UConn received their Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, I questioned whether it would be the death penalty for UConn basketball.

And while it looks quite silly now, based on what has happened in the last 10 months -- well, the last month -- knowing what I know now, my opinion would not have changed.

That should tell you just how impressive this run has been for the Huskies.

UConn was picked 10th in the Big East in the preseason, and rightfully so. They were a team with NCAA sanctions hanging over their head, with a head coach that appeared to be one step away from a convalescent home, and with a young and unproven roster surrounding a 6-foot-nothing point guard that still had a ways to go before his skill set caught up with his tools.

After a terrific non-conference portion of the schedule, which included a Maui Invitational title and a win at Texas, the Huskies came back to earth in Big East play. They went 4-9 against the 11 Big East teams that made the NCAA Tournament, lost four of their last five games in the regular season, and finished ninth in the Big East and playing on the Big East Tournament's first day.

That's when this magical run started.

UConn won five games in five days in New York City, winning the tournament title and earning that three seed. And after winning four games over the past two weekends, the Huskies are now headed to Houston for their second Final Four in three seasons.

Southeast region champ: No. 8 Butler

It may be unfair to call a team making their second straight Final Four a cinderella, but everything about this Butler team screams cinderella.

They finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Horizon League at 13-5. To do so, they had to bounce back for a stretch of four losses in five games, which was capped with the Bulldogs fell at the hands of Youngstown State, a Horizon bottom-feeder.

Butler came into the NCAA Tournament on a roll, winning their last nine games (two of which came in the Horizon Tournament), earning an eight seed and a date with Old Dominion in the first round of the dance. That roll didn't slow down in the dance, as the Bulldogs won four more games to get to the Final Four.

Those wins, mind you, weren't blow outs.

Like any cinderella, Butler has had to scrap and claw to get where they are, taking advantage of some lucky bounces along the way. In their first round game, Matt Howard happened to have a loose ball land in his hands before scoring the buzzer-beating layup in the first round win over Old Dominion. The Bulldogs nearly blew a second round game against Pitt on a silly foul by Shelvin Mack, but thanks to a missed free throw from Gilbert Brown and an even sillier foul by Nasir Robinson, Butler once again advanced.

The Bulldogs managed to avoid blowing a 20 point lead to Wisconsin before taking on Florida in the Elite 8. More magic was in store against the Gators. Seldom-used freshman Chrishawn Hopkins made two plays in the second half to help erase an 11 point deficit and swing the tide of momentum in the Bulldogs' favor before some questionable late-game shot selection from Florida put Butler in another Final Four.

In some ways, Butler's run to the Final Four this season is much more of a cinderella story than last year's. The Bulldogs had some expectation last year. They were a preseason pick to make the Final Four. They struggled through non-conference play, which put a damper on their seeding and their status nationally, but that was still a team with a lottery pick that defended as well as anyone in the country.

This year? They have no such lottery pick, and probably don't have an NBA player on the roster. They don't play an elite level of defense. Yet, here they are.

Back in the Final Four.

Southwest region champ: No. 11 VCU

The Rams may very well be the biggest cinderella of all time.

Very few people thought that the Rams had a shot at making the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday. Not after they lost their last four games in Colonial play. Shaka Smart was so convinced that his team wasn't going to get a bid that he didn't even get them together for the selection show. Brad Burgess went to Five Guys. Ed Nixon watched cartoons. Brandon Rozell did his homework. Joey Rodriguez was the only player that actually watched.

And he was rewarded.

VCU got in, but just barely. They were going to have to take part in the first ever at-large play-in game. The Rams locked up USC defensively, advancing to face Georgetown in the round of 64. They ran the Hoyas and then Purdue off the court with a barrage of three pointers, following that up with a nail-biting, overtime win against Florida State.

Up next was powerhouse Kansas, who was staggered by a series of haymakers thrown by the suddenly-confident rams early in the game. VCU answered a 6-0 start by the Jayhawks with a 19-4 run that was pushed to a 39-15 surge. Kansas was never able to take the lead back, and VCU was headed to the Final Four.

What makes VCU's run so incredible is that they are playing, without a doubt, their best basketball of the season.

The Rams are undersized, but they are loaded with shooters and difficult matchups for teams with more traditional lineups. They also like to press and get their opponents out of an offensive rhythm. And that is precisely what they have done in their first five games of this tournament. For a team that barely cracked the top third in defensive efficiency in the regular season, they have been one of the best defensive teams in this tournament. Even their shooting from beyond the arc is at a level that the Rams have not experienced this season. VCU never hit more than 11 threes in a game in the regular season. They have made 12 in a game three times in five NCAA Tournament games.

VCU has already set a record of sorts.

After Saturday's national semifinal against Butler, VCU will become the first team to ever play in six NCAA Tournament games without having played in the national championship game.

It doesn't get more cinderella than that.

Even this year.

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