NCAA Tournament 2011: Final Four Preview

(Credit: NCAA)

The 2011 Final Four in Houston will be a memorable one. We know this before the games are even played because of the teams involved: Kentucky, which will play Connecticut, and Butler, which faces Virginia Commonwealth. In a year when you should be proud of yourself for correctly predicting one Final Four team and should get your own college hoops radio show if you got two, let’s take a look at some of the facts, figures, and other tidbits relating to the 2011 Final Four.

  • As far as seeds, this is the highest cumulative number in a Final Four (11 + 8 + 4 + 3 = 26), breaking the previous high of 22 in 2000.
  • Two of the teams were unranked in the preseason polls: UConn and VCU. Kentucky, ranked 10/11 in the preseason, remained in the polls all season while Butler (preseason 17/18) fell out after two weeks and never returned. UConn entered the polls in Week 4 and never left. According to TheresAStatForThat.blogspot.com, this is only the fifth time since 1989 (when the polls expanded to 25 teams) that a Final Four matchup features teams unranked at any point during the season (and, as noted, in this case neither was ranked for all but two weeks of the season).
  • This is the first time there is no 1 or 2 seed in the Final Four. Three 1 or 2 seeds played in regional finals (Kansas, North Carolina, and Florida), but all lost to lower seeds.
  • This is the first time since the Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that two teams outside of the BCS conferences are in the Final Four (and first time since 1979, when Indiana State and Penn both made it).
  • Butler coach Brad Stevens is 34. VCU coach Shaka Smart is 33. Those two ages combined do not reach 68, the age of UConn coach Jim Calhoun. It could be the lowest combined age of coaches in a Final Four matchup, but I’m not certain of that.
  • Two of the teams—UConn and VCU—were not in the Tournament last year. The two that were, however, did quite well. Kentucky lost in the Elite 8 and Butler, as I’m sure you remember, was the national runner-up.
  • There are probably not a ton of future NBA players in this year’s group, especially on the right side of the bracket, which is unusual. According to The Wall Street Journal, 94 of the 96 teams that reached the Final Four between 1985 and 2008 had at least one player who eventually appeared in an NBA game. In fact, 91 percent of the teams over that span had at least two such players and the majority of teams had at least four. Kentucky and UConn are both young teams but appear to fit the mold, while Butler and VCU certainly do not. Both teams have just two players each on ESPN’s draft tracker, and all four of those players are listed as “second round to undrafted.” Neither NBADraft.net nor DraftExpress.com have any Butler or VCU players getting selected in their 2011 mock drafts.
  • Only VCU did not win its conference tournament, as the Rams lost in the CAA finals, but given their extra NCAA Tourney game, they are on a five-game win streak. UConn had its historic run in the Big East tournament, winning five games in five days, so the Huskies enter Houston on a nine-game win streak. Kentucky’s streak is at 10, while Butler’s is at an impressive 13.

Kentucky Wildcats

  • John Calipari is taking his third team to the Final Four (UMass and Memphis were the others), joining Rick Pitino (Providence, Kentucky, Louisville) as the only coach ever to do that. Calipari’s previous two appearances were eventually vacated.
  • Kentucky has already gone one step further than it did last season despite losing five players (four freshmen and a junior) in last year’s NBA Draft.
  • Young teams have more room for improvement, and Kentucky has certainly improved as the season has progressed. Evidence of this is UK’s win over North Carolina in the regional final, as the Cats had lost to UNC earlier in the season. Kentucky will get a chance to prove this again on Saturday—they also lost to UConn, 84-67, back in November.
  • Darius Miller was a starter last season and DeAndre Liggins played 15 minutes a game, but the other four players in Kentucky’s rotation have little big-game experience. Three are freshmen and the other is Josh Harrellson, a senior who averaged just four minutes per game last season and played a total of six in last year’s Tourney.
  • Speaking of Harrellson, where did this guy come from? He has upped his season averages in all major categories, tallying 14.7 points and 9 rebounds a game in the Tournament. Most impressive was his ability to guard Ohio State All-America center Jared Sullinger one-on-one, which allowed the rest of the Kentucky defenders to stay home on OSU’s deadly three-point shooters. I realize last year’s squad was loaded with talent—including two frontcourt players that were lottery picks—but I find it hard to believe that Harrellson couldn’t have contributed. Then again, I have not coached three different schools to the Final Four.

Connecticut Huskies

  • This is UConn’s fourth appearance in the Final Four (all under Jim Calhoun) and all four times the Huskies have emerged from the West Region.
  • UConn is now 12-0 in tournament games this season, having won three to claim the Maui Invitational title, five to win the Big East tournament, and four so far in the Big Dance.
  • UConn has not lost an out of conference game this season (15-0).
  • Of the names that have surfaced over the course of the season for Player of the Year—Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette, Jared Sullginer, Nolan Smith—only Walker is still playing. (That being said, Jimmer is still going to win the award.)
  • Walker is the unquestioned leader of this very young UConn squad. According to KenPom.com’s experience rating, which takes into account minutes played, the Huskies rank 332 out of 345 teams, second lowest among BCS schools.
  • I questioned whether UConn’s season had peaked in Madison Square Garden for the conference tournament and if the Huskies had anything in the tank for the Big Dance. Boy was that silly.

Butler Bulldogs

  • When Gordon Hayward declared for the NBA Draft, the national sentiment was, “That’s too bad, this team could’ve made a serious run next year, too.” Instead, following somewhat of a similar script to last year—ranked in preseason, written off in regular season, improbable run to Final Four—the Bulldogs have wowed the nation again.
  • It’s been said a lot already, including multiple times by my roommate Ryan, who picked Butler to reach Houston, but here it is again: This year’s Butler is…Butler!
  • Brad Stevens is the youngest coach to reach two Final Fours. His calm sideline demeanor has been a big reason why. In Underdawgs, a book by Indianapolis Star columnist David Woods about Butler’s memorable run last season, I learned that Stevens often settles his team in late-game huddles by telling them, “We’re going to win this game.” Consecutive Final Fours seem wildly improbable to outsiders, but to those within the Butler program it was expected. To expect and to achieve are two very different things, but it’s hard to do the latter without believing you can.
  • Butler has the most big game experience of any of the Final Four teams and it’s not even close.
  • Here is my thoroughly detailed, heavily researched analysis of Butler’s offense: Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard can get you 20 points each, and the others chip in here and there and somehow at the end of the game they have more points than the other team.

Virginia Commonwealth Rams

  • VCU is the first team to win five games to reach the Final Four. From the First Four to the Final Four—truly remarkable.
  • As an 11 seed, VCU has tied the mark for the highest seed to reach the Final Four. LSU in 1986 and George Mason (more on them later) in 2006 are the others.
  • VCU has been the most dominant team in the Tournament. I repeat: VCU has been the most dominant team in the Tournament. The Rams have won their five Tourney games by margins of 13, 18, 18, 1 (overtime), and 10, an average margin of 15. They’ve been putting teams away early, too, holding a double-digit halftime lead in three of those games. These would be impressive performances by a 1 seed, and is absolutely mind-blowing for an 11 seed.
  • I don’t think this is as big a deal as others are making it out to be, but VCU has defeated teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC, and Big 12 en route to the Final Four. It will now face a team from the Horizon with a chance to play an SEC school in the finals.
  • Shaka Smart, in just his second season as a head coach after serving as an assistant at Florida, Clemson, and Akron, seems to be a great tournament coach. You know what he’s done this season, but last year VCU won the College Basketball Invitational (CBI).
  • Wait, VCU was in the CBI last year? Yes, and it’s yet another fact that underscores how improbable this run really is. People made a big deal of UNC’s turnaround—the Heels were one game away from the Final Four after not qualifying for the Tourney last year—but they went to the finals of the NIT. What Smart has done in year two is incredible.
  • This explains why most of the Rams did not bother to watch the Selection Show.
  • The obvious comparison is to George Mason, a fellow Colonial team that got a questionable at-large bid and marched to the Final Four as an 11 seed. A key difference, if I recall correctly, is that Mason was viewed as a dangerous team entering the Dance. The invitation still came as a surprise after the early exit from the CAA tournament, but many felt George Mason had a team capable of pulling off an upset or two. The same can’t be said of VCU, which was viewed as undeserving and not all that good.
  • I was not in favor of expanding the field and VCU’s run does not change my opinion. However, the Rams’ Tournament run has been unbelievably exciting and had the field not expanded, they almost certainly would not have received a bid, so it’s not all bad.
  • There is a very fine line between making the Final Four and getting bounced earlier in the Tournament. Kentucky needed a basket with two seconds left to beat Princeton by two in its opening game. It got another basket in the final seconds to beat Ohio State in the Sweet 16. UConn led by just one with less than two minutes left against San Diego State and survived two three-point attempts in the closing seconds that would have given Arizona a win in the regional final. Butler has been on a wild ride, beating Old Dominion at the buzzer, Pittsburgh by one, and Florida by three in overtime. VCU, of course, was one of the last teams invited to the Tournament.

Related Articles:

UConn’s path to Final Four
Kentucky’s path to Final Four
Butler’s path to Final Four

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5 Comments

  1. Brad Stephens is building a dynasty! Butler is also the 1st non-power conference team to go to back-to-back Final Fours since Grandmama was at UNLV.

    Reply
  2. Agree, Butler has a good thing going. It makes me wonder what is going on with the middle-of-the-pack big conference teams that rarely break through to the final four and are stuck in mediocrity. Specifically, is it easier to be successful in a low or high-profile conference?

    Reply
  3. Great Analysis. I am the author of theresastatforthat.blogspot.com; there is just a tiny error in your reference to my article. The polls began before 1989, but before 1989 they were just top 20 polls; now they're top 25. I appreciate the reference, and as I said before, good and insightful analysis.http://theresastatforthat.blogspot.com/2011/03/vcu-butler-final-four-matchup-would-be.html

    Reply
  4. Thanks, Deron. And I enjoy your blog; great research! I corrected the mistake, so thanks for clarifying.

    Reply
  1. VCU, The Bubble, and NCAA Tournament Expansion « The Sportswriting of Andrew Kahn

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