It's that time of year again, folks- the best weekend of the year. It's Final Four time in Houston.
This year's edition features a remarkable Cinderella story, a dominant two-man tandem, a young, fiery team with a coach to match, and a not-so-mid-major making a return trip to the biggest stage in college sports. No matter who you root for, the absence of the top seeds makes this Final Four extremely intriguing. The matchups are great, with a small team guaranteed a spot in the championship game on Monday night.
In fact, this group is so unlikely that only TWO of the almost 6 million brackets that were filled out on ESPN.com have this matchup, and one of the people who made one of those brackets admittedly knows very little about college basketball. Just goes to show the true madness and excitement that is THE BIG DANCE.
On to the games!
Follow the jump for analysis of the Final Four round matchups!
Butler vs VCU, Saturday- 6:09 PM
Butler's road to Houston: def. (9) Old Dominion, (1) Pittsburgh, (4) Wisconsin, (2) Florida
VCU's road to Houston: def. (11) USC, (6) Georgetown, (3) Purdue, (10) Florida State, (1) Kansas
Butler lost games to Youngstown State, Evansville, Wisconsin-Milwaukee (twice), Wright State, and Valpo.
Many thought VCU didn't belong in the NCAA Tournament in the first place, narrowly getting into the First Four when the team didn't even host a viewing party to see if they were put into the Tournament.
Yet here we are.
Butler, the only team to repeat in the Final Four from last year, are led by the inside-outside tandem of Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard. But Howard has been the star in this tournament, making all the big plays for the Bulldogs.
Against Old Dominion, he won the game on a tip-in at the buzzer. He rebounded Gilbert Brown's missed free throw and got fouled by Nasir Robinson, nailing the winning FT to give Butler the upset over Pitt. He gave the Bulldogs 20-12 in a tough game against Wisconsin, and he made a lot of crucial hustle plays against Florida. He may not look the part, but Matt Howard is the key for Butler.
Shelvin Mack is known as a big-time clutch player, and he hit the game-winning shot against the Badgers in the Sweet 16 to help get Butler here. His size on the perimeter also makes him a physical, aggressive defender, which could frustrate VCU. His backcourt mate, Ronald Nored, is also no slouch.
For the Rams of VCU, their incredible run is well-documented. VCU has defied the odds time and time again with a formula of defense and terrific 3-point shooting. Senior floor general Joey Rodriguez, and wingmen Bradford Burgess and Brandon Rozzell are all terrific shooters, while inside the Rams have Jamie Skeen, who can also step out and shoot the three. Most of their roster can make the deep shot, so Butler will have to amp up the perimeter D against the VCU sharpshooters.The Rams have beaten every major conference during this run except for the SEC, and the Rams have a chance if things break their way to have a shot at Kentucky, the lone remaining SEC team, in the Final.
This is the type of game where someone unheralded is going to need to step up. Both teams play good defense, with Butler a hair better if VCU gives max effort on that end. A game like that favors Butler, who always seems to have someone step up big in clutch situations, whether it be Mack or Howard or even role players like Zack Hahn and Shawn Vanzant. For VCU, against Kansas the job was simple- double (or triple) down on the Morris twins and close out on Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed. That plan worked well- Morningstar and Reed were off and the Morris twins had rough nights, but Shelvin Mack is much more well-rounded than either Morningstar or Reed, and will be tougher to defend. Also, don't sleep on Ronald Nored- if he has a good game, the Bulldogs have a great shot at advancing to a second straight championship game.
You can't really count out either team at this point, but I think the perimeter defense of Butler will finally slow down the VCU shooters and advance the clock to midnight on Shaka Smart and the Rams.
UConn vs Kentucky, Saturday- 8:49 PM
UConn's road to Houston: def. (14) Bucknell, (6) Cincinnati, (2) San Diego State, (5) Arizona
Kentucky's road to Houston: def. (13) Princeton, (5) West Virginia, (1) Ohio State, (2) North Carolina
The main(er) event on Saturday night at the final four will feature one of the most exciting players in the country in Kemba Walker and one of the most exciting teams in the country in Kentucky.
Everyone already knows about Walker after his exploits in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments, and Jeremy Lamb has stepped up his game lately. The dirty little secret is that UConn has been a two-man team the last 2-3 games. Against a team like Kentucky, someone new (Shabazz Napier?) needs to step up. This is a rematch of their game in Maui earlier in the season, and you can be sure that both teams will make adjustments.
For Kentucky, in the regional round it was DeAndre Liggins stepping up his game. Liggins is the Wildcats' best perimeter defender, and for good reason- he's built perfectly to defend the perimeter- long arms, quick hands and feet, and an intensity that at times is just plain nasty. Liggins will be responsible for Kemba. Walker got the best of him last time, but Liggins will almost certainly do better this time.
UK's best player is Brandon Knight, their point guard, who can not only get to the rim and run the offense- he can shoot as well, which is something that Kentcuky couldn't do last year. Knight has the task of handling the ball pressure of Walker and Napier, who can be very pesky.
Down low it will be an interesting battle between Alex Oriakhi/Charles Okwandu/Roscoe Smith and Terrence Jones/Josh Harrellson/Darius Miller. Neither team is deep and both teams need their best bigs out there come crunch time, with UConn being a little deeper. Both teams play tough, physical defense, which will put pressure on the refs, which will result in some bad calls and some timeless reaction shots from Jim Calhoun and John Calipari.
The X factor for UConn will be their bench. If they can get productive minutes from their bench, they will win, because Kentucky dips into their bench even less. The X factor for Kentucky is Doron Lamb. A very good shot-maker off the bench, his defense against the backcourt of Lamb, Walker and Napier will be crucial to give Knight, Liggins and/or Miller a reprieve to keep their legs fresh for the end part of the game.
Keep an eye on Miller, by the way. The versatile senior wing can defend 4 positions and that versatility will be needed, because I think Kentucky will throw a ton of defenses UConn's way in this game.
I think that Kentucky has the skill to be able to win this game, but UConn's edge in depth and the fact that I think there will be a lot of fouls called in this game tilt my prediction towards the Huskies.
Sit back and enjoy the ride, hoops fans!