Well, we're here. As March Madness keeps a residual torch burning into the first few days of April, four teams are still standing in the NCAA Tournament. (Kudos to whoever scheduled this year's Final Four in Houston, by the way. You're giving the citizenry a little something to distract them from Opening Day, which by now must be an annually depressing beginning to another awful season for Astros fans.) In the zaniest tourney I can remember, we've seen an inordinate amount of upsets, "holy crap!" finishes, and bracket destruction that has far exceeded even its usual level of chaos. The big bad powerhouses of college hoops have mostly been sent home, with 3-seed UCONN the highest-ranked team still afloat. Before the madness resumes tomorrow, here's a preview of our Final Four match-ups:
#11 VCU vs. # 8 Butler. 6:09 PM. Cinderella story VCU knocked off #1-seed Kansas to get here by briefly morphing into the '06 Phoenix Suns offensively. The aptly-named Shaka Smart took a look at the pounding they were getting early down low, and decided to take it out of the equation. The Rams went small ball, running a heady, blistering transition game, and pushing the pace to take the Jayhawks completely out of their rhythmic comfort zone. They hustled and trapped like crazy on defense, and when they were forced into the half-court, they moved the ball and ran off screens until they got open looks for their formidable cast of perimeter shooters. Basically, they completely neutralized Kansas' deeper team and sizable advantage in the paint. In addition to their on-court strengths, VCU is also playing the chip-on-the-shoulder, nobody-believed-in-us card as well as any team I've ever seen, no matter what "happy to be here/one game at a time" platitudes they're dishing out to the media. Here's the problem: Butler isn't Kansas. Brad Stevens is an awfully smart coach, and you can bet he'll have the Bulldogs well prepared to deal with the tempo and style the Rams played in their last game. Butler's Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard are one of the better inside/outside combos in the NCAA, and are more than capable of running at VCU's pace. Moreover, as dangerous as Jamie Skeen, Bradford Burgess, and Brandon Rozzell are from beyond the arc, (all of them are shooting over 40% from downtown), I just don't think we can expect them to replicate the lights-out shooting clinic they needed to get past the Jayhawks. Butler's D is good at closing out on shooters, and that should be in evidence tomorrow. It's been an incredible run for the Rams, but I think we're going to see the Bulldogs make a return to the championship game this year.
Prediction: Butler 74, VCU 69.
#4 Kentucky vs. # 3 U-Conn. 8:49 PM. I actually think Kentucky has the deeper, more versatile squad in this match up. Brandon Knight is having himself a banner year, averaging 17 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds per game. Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb are playing at a very high level, and Darius Miller is shooting a dizzying 45% from deep. Also, if I had to start a college program from scratch tomorrow, I'd take John Calipari over Jim Calhoun any day. The Wildcats are capable of playing multiple styles and they get good production on both ends of the floor from their bench. That being said, have you seen anything since the start of the Big East Tournament that would make you bet against Kemba Walker at this point? Anything at all? The guy is a threat from either guard position, and Calhoun has wisely used him in a variety of offensive looks. If the Huskies can get decent-to-good games from their secondary offensive support network of Alex Oriakhi, Shabazz Napier, and Jeremy Lamb, Kentucky is in for a long night, and if it's a tight game in the closing minutes, Walker will likely do what he's done against every other team that's tired to stand in UCONN's way this season: bring the arena roof down on their heads. I anticipate this game being a hotly-contested slugfest, but in the end, UCONN will be standing when the smoke clears.
Prediction: UCONN 78, Kentucky 75.