Tag Archives: 2011 Final Four

VCU, The Bubble, and NCAA Tournament Expansion

Virginia Commonwealth’s run to the Final Four doesn’t validate the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s decision to include the Rams in the field, just as UAB’s poor showing doesn’t prove they were a bad choice. The discussion about which teams belong in the field and those teams’ performance once the Tourney begins are two separate things.

If you felt VCU had done enough before Selection Sunday to warrant a spot in the field—and more than other teams that were left out—then fine; and if not, OK. What they’ve accomplished so far is irrelevant. I’m guessing the committee members are taking some satisfaction in VCU’s run, though.

Given its appearance in the “First Four,” the play-in games to get into the original opening round of the Tournament, we know that VCU was one of the last four teams in. We can’t be certain they were one of the last three and therefore would not have qualified under previous years’ 65-team format, but it’s a very safe bet. If VCU found itself with the same profile compared to the rest of the field last year, it almost certainly would have been in the NIT.

And who knows, maybe in a 65-team Tournament Clemson doesn’t have to play an extra game and then travel halfway across the country for an early tip 36 hours later, perhaps allowing the Tigers to go on a run. Maybe Southern Cal gets in without having to face VCU in a play-in game and they take the same path the Rams did to reach Houston. These teams can’t complain because they did at least control their own destiny. The point is, adding more teams certainly doesn’t increase the chances of a magic run like VCU’s.

As I noted in my Final Four preview, this was a positive consequence of expansion but still doesn’t mean it’s a good thing for college basketball.

A Final Four banner will be hanging here next season. (Credit: Mentes)

The annual arguments over the last few teams to get bids can get exhausting. My thought has always been that any team that finds itself on the bubble had plenty of opportunities to secure a place in the field, especially if it is from a power conference. The teams themselves should never be criticized on Selection Sunday—they don’t have to apologize for receiving invites—and sometimes the committee backlash is a bit harsh.

But VCU has reminded us what George Mason highlighted in 2006: those last few spots do matter. We assume none of those teams have a shot at the national championship, but can we really believe that anymore? VCU is a small underdog against Butler and would be projected to have a better chance in the finals than it supposedly did against Purdue or Kansas.

Getting into the Tournament matters. Advancing to the Sweet 16 matters. A Final Four appearance is obviously extremely special. These are the types of things that have effects on recruiting, merchandise sales, applications to the school, and coaching decisions (as far as hirings, firings, and raises).

VCU’s run is why Seth Greenberg is livid every year. Virginia Tech has never had a Final Four caliber team, but no bubble team—VCU included—is ever considered a threat to advance that far. We have examples that show us it is possible though: The team that very well might have been the last team in the field has reached the Final Four twice in the last six years. So yes, the post-Selection Show bubble talk can get excessive because, let’s face it, it’s a subjective process and all decisions are final, but it is important.

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

Jimmy V Classic: Kansas, Michigan State, Syracuse, Memphis

NEW YORK—The field for Tuesday night’s Jimmy V Classic doubleheader at Madison Square Garden was extremely impressive: No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 13 Memphis and No. 7 Michigan State vs. No. 8 Syracuse.

As expected, Kansas didn’t have too much trouble with a young Memphis squad, winning 81-68. The Jayhawks never pushed the lead to blowout territory, but after the game was tied early in the second half Kansas went on a 9-0 run; Memphis never got closer than six again.

Meanwhile, Syracuse “manhandled” (Tom Izzo’s words) the Spartans en route to a 72-58 victory. It was a one-possession game with 13 minutes left but the Orange flexed its muscle and fed off what was essentially a home crowd.

Here are some of the things I learned:

Kansas Jayhawks

The national media stories focused on the impending return of the nation’s top recruit, Josh Selby (Dec. 18 vs. USC) and how he will adjust to his teammates. Kansas is 9-0 and some media folks were suggesting Selby’s return could be a bad thing for the Jayhawks.

This was at least partly based on this postgame comment from Bill Self: “To be honest with you, our other players aren’t doing poorly. So [Selby] needs to be part of it as opposed to the guy. Because he’s not going to be the guy. We don’t have the guy. And I kind of like it that way; we have balance.”

But let’s take a step back and give Self—a two time Coach of the Year and national champion—a little more credit. He has had boatloads of talent since he arrived in Lawrence and hasn’t had too much trouble assembling a cohesive team. And let’s not kid ourselves: Kansas can certainly use Selby. “If you look at our team, who breaks down pressure?” Self said. “Obviously, you need a second guy that can do that. Josh is the only guy in our program that you can run really bad offense and come away with two or three points, and every team needs a guy like that.”

It’s not unreasonable to think Selby might press early on, which could lead to even more media scrutiny. But if he is able to settle down he should thrive, as should Kansas. “Expectations will be a little ridiculous for him, starting out, just because everybody’s been waiting and questioning,” Self said. “Our USC home game will be as anticipated a home game as we’ve had maybe in years.”

Memphis Tigers

It’s pretty amazing that Josh Pastner assembled what many experts believe to be the No. 2 recruiting class in the country before he even coached a collegiate game. His talented freshmen were on display Tuesday night, as two rookies led the Tigers in scoring. Will Barton scored 16, though it took him 17 shots to get there, and Chris Crawford dropped 15.

I was most impressed with Crawford, a 6’4 guard who showed a nice outside touch and a willingness to drive to the basket. This is a Memphis team that should definitely improve as the season progresses. I think Pastner will have them back in the Big Dance after a one-year hiatus.

“I told the guys I don’t want to hear about being young,” Pastner said. “I am not going to allow them to have that as an excuse.” Pastner, 33, is the youngest head coach in Division I, but you know he won’t let himself use it as excuse either.

Syracuse Orange

Jim Boeheim always seems to be unhappy with his team, yet the Orange always seem to be in the top 15 and a dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament. But I think Boeheim’s philosophy—to tell anyone who will listen that his team stinks—is accurate to a certain extent: All good teams expect to be a lot better come March.

I’m sure this has been said before, but against the Spartans it was as if Syracuse’s 2-3 zone featured six players. Michigan State started its offense from well beyond the three-point line and couldn’t get anything going early on.

Meanwhile, offensively, it looked like a lay-up line as Cuse jumped out to a 25-13 lead. The Orange only hit two three-pointers, but got 42 points in the paint, many off of seemingly uncontested lay-ups and dunks.

There’s no doubt Syracuse is going to have to find its touch from outside and hope some of the freshmen can develop as the season progresses, but there’s no reason to think this team can’t earn another high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan State

Where to begin? How about with Tom Izzo calling out junior forward Delvon Roe. “I don’t know if Delvon’s frustrated with that. Tom’s frustrated with Delvon, OK? Their guy took it at him, same size—one guy went up tough, one guy didn’t. So Delvon’s got to grow up. He’s healthy. I was not pleased with his play. Not very often am I calling out players; I usually call out a team. But our inside guys need some work. We are just not very tough in there. That has been a trademark of our team and our program, and we’ll get that back.”

Izzo was visibly frustrated after his team was embarrassed for stretches against Syracuse to drop its third game of this young season. He isn’t worried about the losses, but rather the reason behind them. “We’re a pretty boy team now, not a smash-mouth team,” he said.

When he hinted it was an unprecedented defeat for his program, a reporter asked if he could remember how long it had been since he’d lost in such a fashion. “A long time, to be honest with you,” Izzo said. “I’m not proud to say that either. I say we’ve gotten beat, I’ve said we played bad. But it’s been a long time since I thought we totally got manhandled.”

Keep in mind the Spartans were within two points seven minutes into the second half. Also remember they were blown out, twice, by North Carolina two seasons ago. Especially considering one of those games was the national championship, you have to assume Izzo wasn’t forgetting those defeats. Yet he still felt this was worse.

Part of Sparty’s struggles have to be attributed to the brutal schedule—not just tough opponents, but a lot of travel as well—but Michigan State is also getting outrebounded, which is not a good sign. Izzo’s squad has led the nation in rebounding margin the last two seasons and four of the last 11 years. But Syracuse had a 38-30 advantage on the boards and was the fourth opponent the Spartans have failed to outrebound this season. Other teams that have outrebounded Michigan State include South Carolina and Division II Chaminade.

“We all go through the same problems this time of year,” Izzo said. “Some people don’t play hard, some people don’t go up enough, some people feel sorry for themselves. It’s a man’s game, and when you play a schedule like this you’ve got to be ready to play every night.” Regardless of Michigan State’s struggles so far, we all know no coach gets his team prepared for March basketball like Izzo.