VCU Rams - # 11 Seed
We See You - VCU
It's publicized. It's more than unlikely and it's true, Shaka Smart has seemingly done the impossible, knocking off the likes of USC in the first ever First Four, and then upsetting Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas to secure their place in the Final Four.
The Rams were a bubble team in February, but faded badly down the stretch- losing to Old Dominion, George Mason, Drexel and JMU in a five game period before heading into the conference tournament. Needless to say, once VCU was awarded the 4-seed, they pretty needed to win the Colonial, three games in a row, to guarantee themselves an NCAA Tournament berth. However, Smart and his team fell short in losing to Old Dominion in the finals. To be honest, I was shocked that the selection committee named VCU to the field of 68. Aside from UAB, they were the most surprising pick, having skidded to a 5-6 finish in the CAA- not the Big East, or Big Ten, which is certainly inexcusable. They would need to get by USC before heading into a border-line weak first round challenge from the injury plagued Georgetown Hoyas. And they did so. And then Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas- winning their five games by an average margin of 12 points.
Shaka Smart has burst onto the national scene with one brilliant game plan after another, but the two things that remains common are the Rams defense and steady 3-point shooting. VCU is holding opponents to 62 points per game on just 38.9 percent shooting from the floor. While they use their perimeter shooting to jump out to early leads, especially when they can get out in transition. The Rams are averaging nearly 11 3-point makes a game in the tournament.
Butler Bulldogs - # 8 Seed
Butler "Don't Call Us a Cinderella" Bulldogs
VCU's path to the Final Four has certainly taken away some of the glitz and glamour of Brad Stevens' return the promise land. Look at their path out here- last second put-back against Old Dominion, an indescribable last two seconds of action against Pittsburgh, another down-to-the-wire game against Florida in the Elite 8 in overtime. Some fans have argued that the Southeast Region was the easiest of the four paths- Pittsburgh and Florida were deserving of their seeds, but BYU, especially without Brandon Davies was a weaker team, Wisconsin was a solid team all year long, but never perform their best in the Tournament, losing three of the previous four years in the 2nd Round. This is a team that could have lost on the first day of play, but their will, coaching and not to mention Matt Howard carried them to victory.
In late-January / early-February, Butler was spiraling out of the field. They had just lost their fifth conference game of the season, something it took the Bulldogs the three previous years to do, but since then, Butler has won 9 regular-season games to finish atop the Horizon regular-season standings and also a Horizon League title. More importantly, Brad Stevens has led his team to four straight NCAA Tournament victories and a spot amongst the final four teams.
Kentucky Wildcats - # 4 Seed
The Kentucky Wild"Cubs"
John Calipari had a daunting task in front of him- losing five players off last year's roster to the 2010 NBA Draft and replacing them with a bare cupboard of returning talent and one of the nation's top, if not the top recruiting class. Enes Kanter, a player fresh off a dominating Nike Hoop Summit performance (34 points, 13 rebounds), Brandon Knight, an electric guard to lead the attack, Terrence Jones, a versatile inside-outside scoring and rebounder, along with Doron Lamb, the fourth five-star prospect, who can shoot the ball as well as anyone and handle it a bit too. But when Kanter was ruled permanently ineligible, the tables turned. Kanter was easily a top-tier college big man and still remains near the top of our big board, despite not logging a single minute all season long. That means that Calipari would have to turn to senior center, Josh Harrellson. Saying the lumbering 6'10" center didn't have a consistent role last season would be an understatement. He was buried under DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton, playing just 88 minutes total last season. All year long, he had provided Coach Cal with a reliable interior presence, capable of hitting the boards and scoring around the rim when needed. If you haven't seen his new role with the Wildcats, you really need to sit down and watch this fiery big; he's averaging 15 points and 9 rebounds a contest, while doubling as the team's premier defensive presence inside. He locked down on Jared Sullinger, followed by Tyler Zeller and John Henson. With the swift Kemba Walker up next, expect Calipari to keep using Harrellson on the perimeter in pick-and-roll situations to slow down the harassing defense of Walker, but also put UConn big Alex Oriakhi on the move and get him in some early foul troubles.
While Knight has won the games for the Wildcats with his late game heroics, Harrellson has put the team in that position with his play.
Connecticut Huskies - # 3 Seed
Kemba and the Kids
Kemba Walker single-handedly willed the Huskies to a victory over Kentucky earlier this season as part of a scorching shooting stretch that has been matched only by way of Jimmer Fredette. We knew that Walker couldn't keep up his 30-point per game pace and wondered when one of the young UConn players would step up and be Walker's "Robin". As predicted, Walker would cool off, but the supporting cast never came. We looked for big man Alex Oriakhi to thrive with his massive size and rebounding prowess, but he'd rather set screens than post up. Lanky wing Jamal Coombs-McDaniel seemed ready to breakout in his sophomore campaign. He wasn't. Roscoe Smith, a 6'8" smooth wing from Oak Hill, Jim Calhoun's highest-rated recruit could surely help Walker from being doubled-up. Unfortunately, his shooting is really no better than that of Coombs-McDaniel. So where would he look? Two freshmen by the names of Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier. Napier has allowed Walker to play off the ball some, often taking a breather from his exhausting 92 percent of minutes played on the season or the 32.7 percent of UConn's shots that leave Walker's fingertips and he's done a great job with it. He has 14 assists to just three turnovers in the four games and it's glaringly obvious that Calhoun is growing to trust the freshman more and more with the ball. The big-time second scorer, Jeremy Lamb, curls off of screens and waltzes around until he finds himself open from 12-15 out on the baseline- that's his forte, that mid-range jumper right in that spot; he's averaging over 18 points per game in the Huskies four tournament games, nearly double what he averaging during the regular season. His development is coming late in the season, but it's been instrumental in UConn's run through the Big East Tournament and to the Final Four.