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I tried writing separate preview pieces for No. 8-seeded Butler Bulldogs and No. 11 VCU, but I couldn't because it's hard not to link these two teams together into one big piece of ... well... I don't even know if they've made a word that describes how good this game could be. The Bulldogs (27-9) and the Rams (28-11) not only are two mid-major Cinderellas that have won the hearts of college basketball fans everywhere, but each will get a chance to play for a National Championship on Monday night. That's because both will square off against each other Saturday night (6:06 p.m. on CBS) in the first NCAA Tournament Final Four contest in Reliant Stadium in Houston, TX.
Some fans might not like that VCU and Butler have to play each other to advance to the NCAA Tournament's finale, but I like it for a few reasons: 1) The matchup between the two teams is very intriguing because each squad will be playing the underdog card; 2) how Bulter head coach Brad Stevens will game plan against VCU coach Shaka Smart (and vice versa) will be interesting to witness; 3) the fact that each team will be playing for a chance to take down one of colleges basketball's elite programs (either No. 3 UConn or No. 4 Kentucky) will crank up an already intense showdown; and 4) when Amazing (Butler) faces off with Miraculous (VCU), it does not get much better than that.
Need proof? Check out this breakdown:
Amazing (the Butler basketball program), which earned its way into the tournament by winning its second straight Horizon League Tournament championship, will try to earn its second consecutive trip the national title game. I'll say that again, the Bulldogs, who are a mid-major from Indianapolis, IN; lost their best player, Gordon Hayward after last season; needed to beat the No. 1, 2 and 3 seeds in their Southeast Region bracket (last year they also defeated the top two seeds), to advance to their SECOND STRAIGHT Final Four.
This year, amazing's NCAA Tournament journey featured a second-round, buzzer-beating victory over No. 9 Old Dominion, 60-59. Two days later, amazing knocked off No. 1 Pittsburgh Panthers in one of the most amazingly amazing finishes, 71-70. Then, last Saturday, amazing amazed us all by battling back from a 11-point second half deficit to down No. 2 Florida Gators, 74-71, in overtime.
Miraculous (the VCU basketball program) received an at-large invitation because it finished the season 3-5 in its last eight games (that's not really why, but stay with me...). Then miraculous, because of their no-so-solid regular season resume, which was lambasted by college basketball experts like Dick Vitale, needed to earn its way into the March Madness bracket of 64 by playing the USC Trojans in a "it's not really a play-in, but it really is a play-in" contest in Dayton, OH. on March 16. Miraculous downed USC, 59-46, and advanced to the second-round to play No. 6 Georgetown Hoyas, who were dominated, 74-56.
From there, miraculous, from Richmond, VA and the Colonial Athletic Association, went on to beat (and sometimes smash) other squads from big-time BCS conferences like: the Big Ten's No. 3 Purdue Boilermakers, 94-76; the ACC's No. 10 Florida St. Seminoles, 72-71; the Big 12's No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks, 71-61. Yes, miraculous, behind an average of a miraculous amount of 3-pointers (an average of about 11 per game) ended the seasons of five different BCS conference schools (the SEC's Kentucky Wildcats come from the last league on the BCS checklist) to keep its miracle-run miraculously alive.
Either way, amazing or miraculous will become only the third team in NCAA Tournament history that will win a Final Four contest with seed of eight or lower (No. 8 Villanova won the 1985 title, while the '80 UCLA Bruins, also seeded eighth, earned a trip to the title game).
Now that's just amaculous, if you ask me. And, as a college basketball fan, I can't miss out on Final Four paring described like that.
-- For more on our NCAA Tournament coverage visit our March Madness special section.
There are a few things that are ingrained into the American sports fan: 1) Cheer on your team; 2) Root against the opposing team; and 3) hate your team's rival with a bitter passion no matter what.
This is why New York Yankees fans get shivers just thinking about rooting for the Boston Red Sox to win a World Series. Montreal Canadians fans deport anyone who would cheer on the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals; Los Angeles Lakers fans would rather be forced to move to Alaska than root for the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals; and in February, Chicago Bears fans caught wearing any green and gold during Super Bowl Sunday were immediately straitjacketed and sent to a mental hospital (the last story I doubt is true).
So, how is it possible that come Saturday at 8:49 p.m., when the No. 3-seeded Connecticut Huskies are scheduled to tip off against the No. 4 Kentucky Wildcats at Reliant Stadium in Houston, TX., that some Syracuse Orange fans might actually be cheering on the Huskies (30-9), a fierce Big East Conference rival?
I don't have a PhD in the psychological studies of college basketball (though, I would love to have one), so I can't explain why rooting for your team's rival is acceptable as long as its takes place during non-conference contests. In fact, now more than ever this practice is encouraged.
"I don't understand," said my fiance, who is a diehard Yankees fan, to me and my friends who were watching the NCAA Tournament a few weeks ago. "You guys (who are Syracuse Orange fans) are rooting for teams in the Big East Conference? Like Pitt? Louisville? UConn? That's weird."
It's a very strange concept to explain to non-college basketball fans because it's very abnormal to hate a rival one minute and then cheer for them just days later. But that's what college basketball fans do. They root for the conference that their team is a part of as long as that team is playing out of the league. Success for one conference team is success for all -- this explains all why there was so much backlash against the Big East earning a NCAA record 11 invites to the NCAA Tournament.
It took me all season to warm up to the greatness that is UConn's Kemba Walker. At first, I just thought he was another flashy Huskies player with a lot of talent and UConn head coach Jim Calhoun was just tossing him out there 40 minutes a game to make sure his squad got on SportsCenter (though, everyone knows his team was probably going on SC anyway). Then as the season progressed and Walker's early-season numbers dwindled a bit (he went from second in the nation in scoring to about sixth by the end of the regular season) I figured, "See! He's not that good!" However, everything changed when No. 15 and the Huskies collected five wins in five days in the Big East Tournament, March 8-12, and smashed the conference record of four-in-four by the 2005-'06 Syracuse squad led by the legendary Gerry McNamara.
"That was pretty impressive", I thought to myself. "But, let's see if Walker can keep it going throughout the NCAA Tournament. There's no way he's going to last."
Four more victories later, and here I am along with the rest of the college basketball world giving a standing ovation to Walker and the rest of the Huskies for pulling off what me and most fans (including UConn's) deemed impossible. Walker, who averaged 26.1 points per game on 45.6 percent shooting in UConn's past nine victories, has been the catalyst and if I could, I'd like to take every negative thing I said back. (Sorry, Huskie fans, I was just looking through conferencing-playing goggles. The non-conference spectacles are a bit less biased).
No worries, though, the disdain for coach Calhoun and former UConn players are still there. And, if UConn were to reach the final game against either No. 11 Va. Commonwealth Rams or No. 8 Butler Bulldogs, I'd jump off the Big East Conference bandwagon in a heartbeat -- in my world, cheaters should never prosper. But, for at least a few weeks and one more game, the UConn basketball program has one more Big East basketball fan rooting them on.
Even though, it's hard to explain why.
-- Need more insight on UConn basketball? Visit SB Nation's The UConn Blog
I was just nine years old in 1996, the year my Syracuse University fanhood truly began, and I remember (not well) the night that the Orangemen lost the national title game to the Kentucky Wildcats, 76-67, in East Rutherford, NJ. I recall sitting alone (actually, my dad was asleep in the recliner next to me) and feeling the pain of yet another "hometown" team falling oh-so-short of wining the biggest game in its sport (I'm also a Buffalo Bills fan). I might have been only nine, but after that game every time I heard the names: Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Tony Delk and Rick Pitino (unfortunately, that name hasn't gone away) it made me wince just a bit.
For a long while - basically, until SU won its first national title in 2003 - I disliked the Kentucky basketball program very much. However, the tide on my Wildcat hatred turned a bit after I began to get older, liked Ashley Judd movies more, visited Louisville last June (what a beautiful city) and understood how much the Kentucky basketball program means to its sport. There's no arguing that Syracuse basketball fans have an undying love for their team, but Kentucky blue-bloods have a George Steinbrenner-like love affair with Dr. Naismith's sport.
How is that possible, you may ask. Well, let's pretend that SU head coach Jim Boeheim was the coach of Kentucky in '96 (just flip-flop the program's name, but keep the school's results). There's no way that Boeheim would have remained at the helm of the UK's program after the '95-96 season. Especially, after losing the '87 national championship game to Indiana, being knocked out by No. 15-seeded Richmond in the first round of the '90-91 NCAA Tournament and losing another tournament final in '96.
(Tubby Smith, who was the Wildcats coach from '97-07, won a National Title in his first year, compiled 10 consecutive 20-win seasons that included as many NCAA Tournament invites and four Elite 8 appearances; and left college basketball's best job for Minnesota after the '06-07 season.)
"Sorry Jimmy, you may be one of those Lexingtonians that grew up here, played here, was an assistant coach here, but you didn't win the BIG basketball games," the UK supporters would say. "You need to go!"
That type of Boss-like thinking doesn't translate in SU country (Boeheim has been the Orange's coach for 35 seasons despite some of his "lackluster" performances), but it does in the Bluegrass State. It's assumed that's why Smith left; and was the reason Billy Gillispie, who took over after Smith, was fired after just two seasons of modeling UK-embroidered gym wear -- Gillispie was just recently hired as the Texas Tech head coach. However, who can doubt the UK brass' quick-trigger decision-making now?
You can't. Not after John Calipari, who given an eight-year, $31.65 contract by UK a day after the Calipari-led Memphis program reached the national title game in '09 (they lost, 75-68, to Kansas), brought in freshman guard John Wall in his first season (which raised the programs profile back into the national spotlight); and just recently snapped the Wildcats' 12-year Final Four drought in his second campaign. (Much like Joe Torre did in his first season with the Yankees in '96.)
The best part of this story for UK fans isn't that the Wildcats made it to the Final Four (yes, it's a part of it), but it's how Calipari did it. It wasn't with players like Wall or Derrick Rose. It was with a bunch of no-names who actually needed to be coached.
"If the notion that Calipari is a recruiter more than a coach didn't end there, it should end after this season," wrote columnist Eric Crawford of The Courier-Journal wrote on Sunday after Kentucky's 76-69 over No. 2-seeded North Carolina Tarheels. "Because this season, he hasn't just done it with a trio of talented freshmen — and there is NBA talent there — but by developing, through sometimes painful effort, three veteran holdovers from the Billy Gillispie era, all of them guys who have been on the rumor mill out of town at some point during their UK careers."
The more you look at the Calipari-Kentucky relationship the more it makes sense: Calipari is as likable as he's unlikeable, as is UK. Calipari seems to do whatever it takes to win, as does UK. Yeah, each may have a shady-thinking past, but who now cares? UK is winning BIG basketball games and that's all that matters. (Sound familiar, New York fans?)
Come Saturday at 8:49 p.m., when UK is scheduled to tip off against the No. 3-seeded UConn Huskies (30-9) at Reliant Stadium in Houston, TX., UK (29-8) will more than likely be the villain (even more so if the Wildcats make the final game against either No. 11 Va. Commonwealth Rams or No. 8 Buttler Bulldogs on Monday). But like that March day in '96 and Steinbrenner's Yankees from '96 to the present, the blue-bloods don't really care because they came here to win and break the hearts of nine-year-olds everywhere.
-- SB Nation's A Sea Of Blue has everything Kentucky basketball.
Glens Falls, N.Y. native Jimmer Fredette, the nation's leading scorer, has been named to The Associated Press All-America Team. Kemba Walker of UConn, who has led the Huskies into this weekend's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Final Four, is also on the first team. They are joined by Nolan Smith of Duke, JaJuan Johnson of Purdue and Jared Sullinger of Ohio State.
BYU's Fredette led the country with an average of 28.5 points per game. In voting done before the NCAA Tournament, he received all but one vote from the 65-member national media panel that selects the weekly Top 25.
Question, fans of the New Jersey Nets and New York Knicks. Would you want Fredette on your team? I don't think he is a fit with the Knicks at all. The Knicks might benefit from Fredette's incredible range, but between Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire there are so many shots to go around. Fredette needs the ball, and New York is not a place where he would get it. I think he might be a fit in New Jersey as a compliment to point guard Deron Williams and center Brook Lopez. I have no idea how good of a pro Fredette will be, but he has great range and he can create shots from difficult angles. The Nets could use those skills.
Walker 23.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists and was the leader of one of the youngest teams in the country. He has led the Huskies on an incredible run, winning five games to earn the Big East Conference title and getting Connecticut to the Final Four.
I sounded like a broken record on Sunday afternoon, "what I great story. What a great story. This is just a fantastic, amazing story," I announced over and over again to my father, brother and fiance, who each probably wanted to slap me 10 minutes after the No. 11-seeded Va. Commonwealth Rams upset (should we continue to use the word 'upset' anymore?) No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks, 71-61, in the 2011 NCAA Tournament Southeast Regional finals at the Alamodome in San Antonio, TX.
"Who would have thought it? Wow. Butler is going to play VCU Saturday for a chance to play for a national title on Monday. Heck, either one of those teams could beat Kentucky or UConn. Holy crap. UConn is still playing, that's another great story..."
I think, I continued talking about how the VCU basketball program beat a Pac-10 (USC), Big East (Georgetown), Big Ten (Purdue), ACC (Florida St.) and now a Big 12 conference (Kansas) opponent to become the fifth No. 11 seed in men's basketball history to reach the Final Four. I also muttered something about how the Rams (28-11) became the first team ever to win five March Madness games to reach the Final Four in Houston, TX. (Remember, ESPN's Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale screaming into your television screen about how much of a travesty it was that the basketball program from Richmond, VA. earned a first-round, "play-in" contest against the Trojans?)
Then, I ranted about the No. 8-seeded Butler basketball program that will reach its second straight Final Four under head coach Brad Stevens. By now, everyone knows about the Bulldogs Nation Title-game loss to Duke last year; and how still Stevens and his band of Davids are still composing songs that make Goliaths bow down. This year, the Horizon League Champions (27-9) are pulling off another stunning NCAA Tournament performance, but this time they don't have their "best member" Gordan Hayward, who bolted for the NBA after narrowly missing the game-winning, half-court shot that almost shocked the world last season. "No kidding," I added. "I bet if you were to hop on a plane to Rome, visit the Vatican and proclaim, 'I've witnessed miracles, Bulter made it to back-to-back Final Fours,' they'd buy it."
From there, I mentioned how unreal it is that junior guard Kemba Walker is still doing what he's doing; and that somebody may need to test the Bronx, N.Y., native for some sort of PED (just kidding) because not even Lance Armstrong could keep up with Walker's pace. In a 19-day span that featured nine games, five of which came in consecutive days (that led to a Big East Tournament title), and concluded with the No. 3 Connecticut Huskies (30-9) edging No. 5 Arizona Wildcats, 65-63, Saturday in the NCAA Tournament's West Region finals in Anaheim, Calif. Walker not only played in those games for UConn (30-9), and is still alive, but averaged 26.1 points per game on 45.6 percent shooting. Not too shabby.
I concluded by stating, "love 'em or hate 'em nobody can talk crap about Kentucky's John Calipari now." Why? Because Calipari, who is known more for his slick-haired swagger that gets top-notch recruits to sign on the dotted line than his basketball IQ, and the No. 4 Kentucky Wildcats beat No. 2 North Carolina's legendary head coach Roy Williams, 76-69, on Sunday in the East Regional finals in Newark, N.J. Williams seemed to have the better team heading into the NCAA Tournament, but somehow, some way Calipari got the best out of the Wildcats (29-8).
"The best thing", I said. "Between now and Saturday, there are still more stories to be told."
Over the course of the next three days, SB Nation New York will re-live more stories behind the 2011 NCAA Final Four in this StoryStream. So, please check back throughout the week. For more on our NCAA Tournament coverage visit our March Madness special section.