The 2011 Final Four is one of contrasts: Mid-major vs. powerhouse; rising star coaches vs. established veterans; under the radar vs. in your face; quiet vs. controversy. The most telling of these is that two of the more disliked programs in the country will meet in one semifinal, while the other will feature two teams who are trying to shed the cutesy "Cinderella" label.
Saturday's first game features two surprise teams, Southwest champion and 11 seed VCU and Southeast champion Butler, that region's No. 8 seed. The Rams have already won five NCAA games, thanks to their victory over USC in the First Four in Dayton. After reaching the main draw, Shaka Smart's team has won four more games over major conference foes, with only a regional semifinal triumph over Florida State coming by less than double digits. On the other hand, Butler Bulldogs got in thanks to a Horizon League Tournament title, and they've played a series of tense contests. The Bulldogs needed a Matt Howard buzzer-beater to defeat Old Dominion in the
First Second Round, then they advanced out of Washington thanks to a controversy-filled win over Pittsburgh. In New Orleans, Brad Stevens' team shut down Wisconsin late, needing overtime to top Florida o make it this far. You may be tempted to call this game the undercard, but given the sheer amount of fight in each of these teams, that would be a serious mistake. Both Butler and VCU will have a serious shot on Monday, thanks to the talent they have on the court and the tests they've already faced.
The second semifinal features two names that you would expect to see in a Final Four, represented by two teams who are late surprises, the East champion Kentucky, the No. 4 seed in that region, and the West's standard-bearer Connecticut, the three seed. The Wildcats are riding a 10-game winning streak, which includes an SEC Tournament title and NCAA wins over Princeton, West Virginia, and the top two seeds in the East, Ohio State and North Carolina. Meanwhile, the Huskies have won nine in a row, which started with five games in five days to claim the Big East title. In the NCAAs, UConn topped Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State, and Arizona to reach Houston. These two met earlier this season, with the Huskies routing the Wildcats, 84-67, in the Maui Invitational final back on November 24th, thanks to 29 points from Kemba Walker.
After the jump, I'll look at the results for this week's poll.
Since semifinal No. 2 features two programs who have been unable to shy away from controversy over the past few seasons, you would bet that many neutrals are backing the two mid-major programs, who happen to meet in Saturday's first game. Part of this is likely due to the reputation of the coaches, as Jim Calhoun and John Calipari both have their share of detractors, while Butler's Brad Stevens and VCU's Shaka Smart have become media, and fan, darlings, thanks to their respective programs' place in the game, their lack of NCAA/PR issues (so far), and yes, their age. It's still hard for me to believe that both teams in one National Semifinal are both coached by guys around my own age.
However, the actual results provide a bit of a surprise.
- Butler 35%
- Connecticut 33%
- VCU 20%
- Kentucky 10%
Total votes: 4836
Butler does indeed hold a slim plurality in the poll, but UConn, not VCU, sits in second place, and with a share of the votes not much smaller than the Bulldogs'. The Rams are a distant third, while Kentucky is last, as anticipated.
No matter which pair of teams wins tonight, we should be in for an amazing final on Monday.