NCAA Final 4 Preview - (11) Virginia Commonwealth vs. (8) Butler
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When the Virginia Commonwealth Rams and the Butler Bulldogs take the floor this Saturday in front of more than 40,000 fans inside a domed stadium meant primarily for football, they’ll be stepping into quite a bit of history, recalling a Final Four played over 30 years ago.
The 2011 NCAA Men’s Final Four offers one of the most unexpected and fascinating quartets ever seen in the 73-season history of the event. Begun in 1939 on the campus of Northwestern University, the Final Four – which really wasn’t a brand name until the late 1970s or early 1980s – has featured an assortment of surprising party-crashers over the years.
Jacksonville – now residing in the Atlantic Sun Conference – reached the big stage in 1970 thanks to a big man named Artis Gilmore, and in that same 1970 gathering, New Mexico State and St. Bonaventure also reached college basketball’s ultimate weekend before joining Jacksonville as pretenders to UCLA’s throne. Western Kentucky climbed the Final Four mountain in 1972, as the Hilltoppers punched a ticket to their first-ever Final Four. Rutgers, believe it or not, cracked the Final Four code in 1976. UNC-Charlotte broke through in 1977 and has tasted relative obscurity as a program ever since.
However, with all these precedents in mind, the last Final Four to match this Saturday’s pairing of Virginia Commonwealth and Butler occurred in none of those years. If you want a parallel to VCU-Butler 2011, you need to go back to the Final Four that truly launched college basketball’s mainstream popularity, making the weekend – and the larger NCAA Tournament surrounding it – the sensations they are today.
In 1979, college basketball attained a higher level of national interest. That story is well documented. Michigan State defeated Indiana State in the championship game, as the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird battle captivated the country and shone a bright spotlight on the sport. However, what a lot of casual sports fans don’t realize about that particular Final Four in Salt Lake City was that it was the last Final Four to feature two schools from what would generally be called mid-major conferences.
Indeed, while Indiana State grabbed headlines and pushed past highly-credentialed DePaul in the national semifinals, it needs to be noted that the University of Pennsylvania, a number-nine seed in a crazy East Region, found its way to the promised land by knocking off tenth-seeded St. John’s in the East Regional final. Yes, an Ivy League team – 14 years after Princeton made the Final Four in 1965 – made the Final Four and gave the little guys two representatives in college basketball’s supreme quartet. The 32 years since that Final Four have featured teams from non-power conferences, but UNLV – a Final Four team in 1987, 1990 and 1991 – was not exactly a low-budget school with minimal resources. The 1979 Final Four marked the last time that two schools with small basketball budgets made their way to the top. George Mason set an example for the underclass in college hoops with its run to the 2006 Final Four, and Butler advanced even one step further in 2010, but nothing prepared college basketball fans for the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Nothing prepared hoops junkies for the runs Butler and VCU have pulled off over the past few weekends.
Butler lost to lowly Youngstown State and found itself fifth in the Horizon League at one point. The Bulldogs were legitimately on the bubble throughout February and began to feel safe only when they beat Cleveland State in the semifinals of the Horizon League Tournament. Coach Brad Stevens’s team didn’t defend the way it had in last year’s run to the NCAA national championship game; a number of injuries impeded the team’s progress, but the basketball community was still stunned by the extent to which the Horizon League wore down the Bulldogs. As BU entered the NCAAs with a number eight seed, nothing was expected of the Bulldogs. Old Dominion, a mid-major foe in round one, was actually expected to beat Butler. However, when Matt Howard tossed in a putback at the buzzer to deliver a two-point victory, it was as though the Bulldogs regained their muscle memory. They beat a top-seeded Big East team for the second straight year in the Big Dance (Pittsburgh; Syracuse was the victim in 2010) and then powered past Wisconsin and Florida to return to the Final Four. As amazing as Butler’s run to the 2010 Final Four truly was, the ability to replicate that journey a year later is a million times more remarkable. Butler has quickly developed a deserved reputation as a reliable closer in the sport.
Virginia Commonwealth’s journey to Houston has been no less extraordinary than Butler’s magic carpet ride. The unique feature about VCU’s experience is that the Rams truly could have been left on the outside looking in.
VCU coach Shaka Smart, who has joined Stevens as an elite young coach in college basketball (he’s 33 years old while Stevens is 34), didn’t even gather his team for a Selection Sunday party… he didn’t expect his team to be invited to Dance. Yet, VCU was given a play-in slot – ironically, because it beat George Mason, the 2006 tournament darling, in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament. It was hard to think that the Rams could do much of anything from their First Four place in the bracket, but at least VCU had its foot in the door.
That door has never closed.
VCU fought past USC in an ugly First Four game, but once that hurdle was surmounted, the Rams flourished with a newfound confidence that had been missing in losses to Georgia State, Northeastern, and other less-than-imposing teams in the CAA. Those losses were eerily similar to Butler’s setback against Youngstown State. The most mind-blowing aspect of these two teams’ tournament successes is that they emerged on the heels of distinctly disappointing regular seasons. When the bright lights of March Madness came on, however, VCU and Butler delivered the goods. In VCU’s case, authoritatively so.
After surviving the First Four, VCU delivered the hammer to big-name opponents. The Rams raced past Georgetown and Purdue in the Chicago subregional to make the Sweet 16. It was in the regional semifinals that the Rams nearly tumbled out of the tournament, but a basket with seven seconds left on a perfect inbounds play lifted VCU to a one-point overtime win over Florida State. America felt VCU had no chance against top-seeded Kansas in the Southwest Regional final, but instead it was KU that looked completely out of its league. The Jayhawks hit just 2 of 21 threes and only 15 of 28 foul shots while a confident Virginia Commonwealth club rolled to a 71-61 triumph.
They both beat top seeds. They both defied all odds. They both shrugged off so-so regular seasons to light up the world in March. Now, they meet in early April with the eyes of the American sporting public focused on their every move in a vast domed stadium.
What will be the key to this game? It makes sense to simplify the issue. The team that handles the pressure with better poise and composure will prevail. Will Virginia Commonwealth continue to knock down shots? If so, Butler’s in huge trouble. Will Butler defend the way it did last year and impose its rebounding prowess on the Rams? If so, VCU’s going to have a difficult evening in the Lone Star State.
Ultimately, the winner of this game is less of a story than the reality of two mid-majors arriving at the Final Four, removing the big boys to own a full half of the week’s buzz and anticipation. Set aside the predictions and the X-and-O details. The simple reality of this game – the fact that it’s even happening – will remain the most enduring story of this week at the Final Four. If the winner of this game prevails on Monday night, we can then talk about an even bigger story deep in the heart of Texas.
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