I always knew I would spend the first weekend in April in Houston at the Final Four because, you know, it's kind of my job. But I had no idea I would be spending it with Kentucky, Connecticut, Butler and VCU, and I'm pretty sure Kentucky, Connecticut, Butler and VCU had no idea they would be spending it with each other.
I mean, how could they?
|More on Final Four|
Top storylines heading into the Final Four. More >>
Turns out Coach Cal can actually coach, too. More >>
Huskies' toughness comes through when it counts most. Read More >>
Just because it's Butler again, doesn't make the Bulldogs' run any less amazing. More >>
VCU is the team calling the shots, hitting the shots, moving to the Final Four in Houston. Read >>
This is the first time all four No. 1 seeds and all four No. 2 seeds have missed the Final Four. The combined seeds of the four remaining teams is 26; the previous high was 22 in 2000. So this really is the most unlikely Final Four in history, and if Butler or VCU wins two more games, we'll also have the most unlikely national champion in history -- not to mention our first champion from outside of the conference power structure since UNLV won a title in 1990.
Bottom line, this craziness has brought college basketball to the verge of more craziness.
To help prepare you, I bring the Final Four Look Ahead.
We had this pegged all wrong: Yes, my bracket is a mess. But so is yours. So let's not waste time trying to make sense of Ohio State and Kansas being done while Butler and VCU are not. You've got a better chance of figuring out that confusing film called Mulholland Drive than you do this Final Four because there's nothing that happened during the regular season that suggested this was realistic. A team that finished ninth in the Big East (Connecticut), a team that finished three games back in the SEC East (Kentucky), a team that finished fourth in the Colonial (VCU) and a team that took five losses in the Horizon (Butler) will compete for the national title this weekend. If your bracket has more than two Final Four teams left, you're an idiot.
But I did have UK figured out on New Year's Eve: Kentucky pounded Louisville on Dec. 31, at which point I posted a blog headlined "UK can shoot its way to the Final Four.". It contained the following sentence: "This season's Kentucky team isn't nearly as talented as last season's Kentucky team, and yet I won't be surprised if this season's Kentucky team goes farther than last season's Kentucky team, which is to say all the way to the Final Four." From there, I went on to explain that John Calipari's losses in the 2006 Elite Eight and 2010 Elite Eight were both the results of terrible shooting performances -- specifically a 2-of-17 effort on 3-pointers in Memphis' loss to UCLA and a 4-of-32 effort on 3-pointers in UK's loss to West Virginia -- and I pointed out how this UK team could be different because it has better shooters, hence the "shoot its way to the Final Four" headline. In case you missed it, UK made 12 of 22 3-point attempts Sunday against North Carolina and thus shot its way to the Final Four. So if you need me, I'll be over here patting myself on the back.
And now the Wildcats are the favorite to win it all: According to Sportsbook.com, that's true. Kentucky (+150) is the favorite followed by Connecticut (+200), Butler (+300) and VCU (+400). As for the Saturday games, UK is a 2-point favorite over UConn; Butler is a 2.5-point favorite over VCU.
The contrasts in Houston
Contrast in ages: Combine Brad Stevens (34 years old) and Shaka Smart (33 years old), and they still haven't lived as long as Jim Calhoun (68 years old), whose head-coaching career started in 1972 -- four years before Stevens was born and three years before Smart was born. When Calhoun won the 1999 NCAA tournament, Stevens was a point guard at DePauw and Smart was a point guard at Kenyon College. Stevens and Smart have been head coaches for six combined seasons. Meantime, Calipari (52 years old) was the head coach at UMass for eight seasons and Memphis for nine seasons. In between, he spent four years in the NBA -- three as the head coach of the Nets and one as an assistant with the Sixers.
Contrast in programs: Butler (2) and VCU (1) have made a combined three Final Fours. Kentucky (14) and Connecticut (4) have combined for 18. Five different men (Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and Calipari) have taken UK to the Final Four. Calhoun, Stevens and Smart are the only men to ever lead their schools to the Final Four.
Contrast in salaries: Calipari makes roughly $4 million annually for coaching UK while Calhoun makes about $2.3 million for coaching UConn. It's believed that Stevens, after a significant pay raise, now makes around $1 million annually coaching Butler. Smart's base salary is only $325,000, but he has made about another $200,000 in bonuses thanks to this run through the NCAA tournament.
Contrast in NCAA violations: Calipari has vacated Final Fours at UMass (1996) and Memphis (2008), and Calhoun currently has UConn on three years of probation. Stevens and Smart have done no such things.
Everybody left has shown the ability to lose
Kentucky and Butler are the favorites to advance to the title game next Monday, but there really isn't much difference between these teams. They come from different leagues, have different styles and different levels of prospects, but they've all shown they can beat and lose to almost anybody. In fact, the four remaining teams have a combined 37 losses. Only Connecticut went the entire season without losing to a team not good enough to make the Field of 68.
|After Duke beat Butler on Dec. 4, who could have foreseen that Duke would be at home watching Butler play in the Final Four? (US Presswire)|
Kentucky: Lost eight games total and three games to teams that didn't make the Field of 68. The Wildcats' last loss was Feb. 23 at Arkansas.
UConn: Lost nine games total and zero games to teams that didn't make the Field of 68. The Huskies' last loss was March 5 to Notre Dame.
Butler: Lost nine games total and six games to teams that didn't make the Field of 68. The Bulldogs' last loss was Feb. 3 at Youngstown State.
VCU: Lost 11 games total and five games to teams that didn't make the Field of 68: The Rams' last loss was March 7 to Old Dominion.
So how did these teams make the Final Four?
Kentucky made the Final Four because ... it hired a coach (Calipari) who recruits pros and, almost always, gets them to perform like pros. It's surprising that Ohio State didn't advance out of the East Regional, but there's nothing all that surprising about a roster with pros advancing to the third weekend.
UConn made the Final Four because ... it has a Hall of Fame coach (Calhoun), a veteran star (Kemba Walker) and an emerging star (Jeremy Lamb), and because the Huskies simply got hot at the right time. In other years, that might not be enough. But it is this year.
Butler made the Final Four because ... it has a brilliant coach (Stevens) and a roster of players willing to commit on both ends of the court to doing whatever must be done to achieve success. That the Bulldogs don't rattle is another important quality. They've trailed in the second half of three of their four games in this NCAA tournament. Never once did it seem to matter.
VCU made the Final Four because ... it has a coach (Smart) who masterfully played the us-against-the-world card while his team suddenly became great at making 3-pointers. The Rams played 34 times before Selection Sunday and never made 12 3-pointers in a game. But they've done it three times in this NCAA tournament -- against Georgetown (12 for 25), against Florida State (12 for 26) and against Kansas (12 for 25).
And the national champion will be ...
Title game I expect to watch: Butler vs. Kentucky
National champion I expect to see crowned: Butler