Unthinkable final four heads to Houston
Even in the unpredictable, anything-goes world of March Madness, this is a Final Four nobody saw coming.
Kentucky, Connecticut, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth — the improbable, the implausible, the unthinkable and the downright unimaginable.
In one game in Houston next Saturday, No. 4 seed Kentucky will play No. 3 Connecticut — not a completely absurd thought as a Final Four matchup, though hardly a popular pick given their up-and-down regular seasons.
In the other game, it will be No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth against No. 8 Butler — the team that was almost universally panned when its name was called on Selection Sunday against the defending national runner-up from a 4,500-student campus whose amazing success story had supposedly run its course.
“It never gets old,” Bulldogs senior Matt Howard said.
Nor does the NCAA tournament, the three-week office pool that places the so-called experts on even footing with those who fill out brackets because they like a team’s colors or its mascot.
Anything goes. Anyone can win.
And never has that been more true than this year.
Four teams with a combined 37 losses.
Four teams whose combined seeding equals 26, breaking the record of 22 in 2000.
Not a single No. 1 seed for only the second time since seeding began in 1979 and, according to STATS LLC., the first time that no 1 or 2 seed will be there.
ESPN, which sponsors one of the country’s biggest bracket tournaments, said that out of 5.9 million entries, only two had this foursome making its way to Houston.
“I think what it does as much as anything, it just puts a spin on the NCAA tournament,” said Kansas coach Bill Self after his top-seeded team lost 71-61 to VCU. “It’s wild. … Because seeds are so overrated. It’s about matchups. And their players could play for us any day.”
VCU (28-11) got up early on Kansas and never looked back, an upset winner in a tournament that’s all about underdogs.
“Our guys have done a phenomenal job of putting all the doubters aside, putting all the people that didn’t believe in us aside and going out and doing their job,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said.
The Rams are the third No. 11 seed to make the Final Four and the first since George Mason in 2006, also of the Colonial Athletic Conference. But the Rams are the first ever that will need to win seven games — not the usual six — to make it all the way through the NCAA tournament. They were one of the last at-large teams to make the newfangled 68-team field. They played in the new “First Four” — an extra round that was added as part of the NCAA’s new $10.8 billion TV deal.
Now they’re in the Final Four.
They’ll play Butler (27-9), which slumped through big chunks of this season, a somewhat predictable result after what was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Final Four last season, played a scant six miles from their Indianapolis campus.
This year, the destination is Reliant Stadium — 1,036 miles away. The Bulldogs are once again proving that all it takes is good players — not a conference, a big school or gobs of money — to compete on the biggest stage in college sports.
Last season, in one of the most epic finishes in Final Four history, Gordon Hayward’s halfcourt shot banked off glass, nicked off the rim and barely bounded out to leave the Bulldogs two points short of Duke for the national title.
It was a heartbreaker, but maybe one that set the Bulldogs up for a repeat. They’ve won one game by one, another by two and another by three on this year’s road to the Final Four. They beat Florida 74-71 in overtime Saturday to make their second straight trip.
“I think it (last year) helps you with knowing how you need to prepare and what you should do and what you should not do,” Howard said. “I think that will help us.”