NEWARK -- Such is the state of this NCAA tournament, that I could wake up Friday morning in New Orleans thinking there were strong odds Houston's Final Four would include two No. 1s (Ohio State and Kansas) and a No. 2 (Florida) ... and then be in Newark on Sunday night, watching No. 4 Kentucky clinch the last spot -- alongside No. 3 UConn, with No. 8 Butler and No. 11 VCU filling out the other half. I was stunned to witness the Bulldogs' second straight Final Four-clinching win, and am still stunned when I see the teams printed on this bracket t-shirt.
But it's actually for sale. Beautiful chaos in the bracket gave us our first all-mid-major semifinal in the history of the expanded tournament, and the highest-seeded final quartet ever. The Wildcats are now the log5 favorite and Vegas' favorite, which means that, if the tournament holds true to form, they're doomed.
Herewith, the Tourney Blog's first look at the field in Houston, with much more to come this week:
Southwest Champ: No. 11 VCU
Victims: No. 11 USC, No. 6 Georgetown, No. 3 Purdue, No. 10 Florida State, No. 1 Kansas
Tournament Identity: Team SWAG.
Footage of 33-year-old head coach Shaka Smart's locker-room speeches is in abundance on the Web -- the man doesn't just know how to lead, he knows how to get maximum exposure out of this run -- but one clip from after the Rams' Sweet 16 win over Florida State is most representative of this team's confidence level. It's a call-and-response clip with more usage of "swag" than an Odd Future video. According to SI's Pablo Torre, who was with the Rams, this was spontaneous, and inspired by Lil B. Smart speaks first, and his team answers (forward to the 2:21 mark):
"We're in the Elite Eight."
"We beat the Pac-10."
"The Big East."
"The Big Ten."
"And the ACC."
"Now, we get to play the only No. 1 seed left in the whole tournament, from the Big 12. Guys, are we done?"
The Rams weren't done. They ran Kansas off the floor on Sunday, holding the Jayhawks to their second-lowest points-per-possession average (0.886 PPP) of the season. They were undaunted by the pregame bullying of KU's Morris twins, one of whom walked up and told them, "The run's over," before the opening tip. Smart has them exuding so much confidence that they could very well go from being in the First Four to the national champs. Especially if forward Jamie Skeen and guard Brandon Rozzell, who each went 4-of-7 from long range in that 71-61 win, keep shooting like assassins. Their huddle-break chant, if you keep watching the video, is "1-2-3 KILL."
The Unbelievable Thing:
While I was sitting in the Prudential Center watching Kentucky-North Carolina, I e-mailed Ken Pomeroy, Mr. Tempo-Free, to ask if he had a snapshot of his adjusted efficiency rankings from just before the tournament began. I wanted to see where VCU actually stood, and the spreadsheet Pomeroy sent back was amazing -- well, as much as a spreadsheet can be. I've long been of the belief that there's such a thing as a "Final Four Statistical Profile," mainly because no Final Four team in the previous seven years kenpom.com has been charting stats has finished outside the top 50 in adjusted offensive efficiency, or outside the top 30 in adjusted defensive efficiency. But let's present the pre-tournament profile of VCU:
• The Rams ranked 84th in overall efficiency according to kenpom's Pythagorean formula. The five teams just ahead of them, in ascending order, were Iowa (11-20 record), College of Charleston (NIT), Missouri State (NIT), Marshall (CIT) and Indiana (12-20).
• The Rams' offense was OK, at 59th overall, but their defense was atrocious, ranking 143rd, allowing an adjusted 1.008 PPP. The five teams just ahead of them in the adjusted defensive efficiency standings were Mississippi (NIT), Oregon State (11-20), Fresno State (14-17), Northern Colorado (a No. 15 seed) and Northwestern (NIT). And yet ... VCU went out and shut down Kansas in a more forceful fashion than anyone but Texas did all season.
How does this happen? You'd like to say you saw the Rams coming, but there were no statistical indicators for this Final Four run. They're playing out of their minds. Clearly, the formula of "NIT Efficiency Profile + Hyperswag = Overnight Juggernaut" needs to be considered for future pre-tournament evaluations.
Butler's Matt Howard has a nose for the ball when the game's on the line. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Southeast Champ: No. 8 Butler
Victims: No. 9 Old Dominion, No. 1 Pitt, No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 2 Florida
Tournament Identity: Team Revival
The Bulldogs were an inadequate defensive team at the beginning of February -- one that was headed to the NIT if it didn't change following a Feb. 3 loss to Youngstown State, which would finish 9-21. It was in the locker room following that defeat that coach Brad Stevens told the Bulldogs, just as he had after the two losses that had directly preceded that one, "I've got to be better." Senior guard Zach Hahn -- and a number of his teammates -- responded by saying, "No, we've got to be better," and then recommitted themselves to the kind of defense that defined their 2010 Final Four run.
As you can see from Crashing The Dance's Net Efficiency Margin charts (which show five-game averages, and the wider the gap between offense and defense, the better a team is performing), Butler's defense was consistently good throughout 2010. But in 2011, it lost its way at the point of the Youngstown game, where the lines intersect, before returning to form by the second week of the NCAA tournament:
The Bulldogs' D had some lapses against Florida in the Elite Eight, especially early in the game, when it had no answer for Vernon Macklin and wasn't containing Kenny Boynton off of ball-screens. But with the game on the line, needing defensive holds at the end of regulation and overtime, they stepped up and got the stops necessary to reach the Final Four. As assistant coach Matthew Graves said, "Whoever we play next week, we'll take a one-point lead, they can have the ball with 30 seconds to go, and we'll be very confident no matter who we're playing, that our guys can get a stop." Swag to that.
The Unbelievable Thing(s):
Whereas VCU reached Houston by overwhelming opponents, Butler has needed a bit of magic, from Matt Howard's game-winning putback against Old Dominion, to the foul absurdity that ended the Pitt game on Howard's free throws, to the out-of-nowhere insertion of freshman Chrishawn Hopkins -- who had played seven minutes since Jan. 16, but created five points in five minutes, changing the momentum against Florida. "Magic" could also be interpreted as being in the right place at the right time, and making the right decisions ... but either way, things always seem to work out for the Bulldogs, even against long odds. After the Hopkins substitution paid off, Butler beat writer David Woods, who works for the Indianapolis Star and wrote a book about the Bulldogs' 2010 run, was in a state of disbelief. "It's like what I sometimes said about my book," he said. "Had I summed this up as fiction, it would have been rejected, because it's too implausible."
I wondered if the last decision Stevens had to make against the Gators would be the one that finally went wrong. After Shelvin Mack had hit two free throws to make the game 74-71, Florida was inbounding the ball with 10.6 seconds left. Erving Walker would likely cross the halfcourt line around the seven-second mark, putting the up-three, under-seven foul scenario in play that I wrote about Butler using in last year's Final Four. But Stevens chose not to foul -- "There was too much time left, and Florida knew it, because they came down and shot quickly," he said -- and Walker's contested three went off the mark. To win, Butler had to survive a shot attempt by a kid whose nickname is "Big Shot Erv."
Stevens' old coach at DePauw, Bill Fenlon, who's a huge proponent of always fouling in the up-three situation, and was a focal point of that story, texted me the next day and said, "[I wasn't] sure if they were gonna foul or not ... that's the way [Stevens] likes it!"
Despite the evangelism of his former coach, Stevens remains a situationalist, and he felt that fouling there was not an ideal situation. Fenlon acknowledged the fact that Walker shot with more than five seconds left, but he asked me, "Did you think that last shot was makeable?" I said it had a chance. He agreed, but then wrote, "However, it makes it easier to foul next time."
Stevens has succeeded at remaining unpredictable heading into the Final Four.
East Champ: No. 4 Kentucky
Victims: No. 13 Princeton, No. 5 West Virginia, No. 1 Ohio State, No. 2 North Carolina
Tournament Identity: Team Blueprint
Kentucky players pose with Jay-Z in their locker room at the Prudential Center. (@uknum1 on Twitter)
During the 2010 NCAA tournament, the Wildcats had a rapper in their locker room after a second-round win over Wake Forest. That was Drake, whom they palled around with like fellow college kids. His presence was not a surprise, as he'd performed at their Big Blue Madness event, and was an avowed fan of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. But Drake hasn't been back around Kentucky since those two left for the NBA, and while the Wildcats roster downgraded in overall talent from last season to 2011, they upgraded to a new hip-hop associate: Jay-Z, pal of John Calipari's friend William Wesley, and part-owner of the Nets, in whose arena Big Blue knocked off North Carolina on Sunday. When the Kentucky kids returned to their locker room after cutting down the nets in Newark, they found Jay-Z there waiting for them as a surprise. He asked them how it felt to be going to the Final Four; they asked him if he'd come to Houston. That's TBD, but at least they have photos.
As for their Blueprint for getting one step further than their Wall-Cousins-Bledsoe-Patterson predecessors and reaching a Final Four the year after it was expected to happen: It revolved around shooting. They were 12-of-22 on threes against Carolina in the Elite Eight in 2011, while they were just 4-of-32 from long range against West Virginia in the Elite Eight in 2010. There is no Cousins or Patterson on this team, and while freshman point guard Brandon Knight is even more clutch than Wall, he doesn't have the same breathtaking array of NBA skills; what this Wildcats team has is more gunners than Calipari has ever had at his disposal in the past. Knight (38.2 percent), Doron Lamb (48.1), Darius Miller (44.9) and DeAndre Liggins (40.2), who hit the dagger three on Sunday, are all dangerous from beyond the arc, and they're the big reason why this year's Kentucky offense is actually more efficient (ranking seventh nationally) than last year's.
The Unbelievable Thing:
I did not think, back in November, that this would be the season Kentucky ended its extended (13-year) Final Four drought. Nor could I have imagined a scene where a few thousand Wildcats fans in Newark would be chanting about jean shorts -- "JORTS! JORTS! JORTS!" -- to celebrate the trip to Houston. But there they were on Sunday, chanting for Josh "Jorts" Harrellson, the senior center who's improbably grown from total stiff to solid role player to hub of the Kentucky offense. Knight is the point guard, but Harrellson's playmaking ability is vital to what the Wildcats do; he draws opposing big men away from the rim, either by receiving the ball at the top of the key and driving into handoff actions with shooters, or setting ballscreens for them to get open looks off the dribble. In a three-day span in New Jersey, Harrellson did battle with two of the best five-men in college basketball, and the head-to-head numbers were close enough to keep UK in contention:
Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, who would've been a lottery pick had he not decided to return for his sophomore season, had 21 points and 16 rebounds (eight offensive). Against him, Harrellson had 17 points, 10 rebounds (five offensive) and three blocks.
North Carolina's Tyler Zeller had 21 points, nine rebounds (two offensive) and four blocks. Against him, Harrellson had 12 points, eight rebounds (three offensive) and four assists. He is not Sullinger or Zeller, but he's not that far out of their league. No one would've said that four months ago.
West Champ: No. 3 UConn
Victims: No. 14 Bucknell, No. 6 Cincinnati, No. 2 San Diego State, No. 5 Arizona
Tournament Identity: Team Kembionic
The Huskies have now played 365 minutes of basketball in the past 19 days, 85 more than their Final Four opponent, Kentucky, has over the same span, and they've shown no signs of tiring. They're either bionic, or just too full of youthful energy for it to matter -- a crew of fearless freshmen supporting junior Kemba Walker, whose star hasn't faded a bit since he led them to a five-games-in-five-days romp through the Big East tournament. He averaged 26.0 points in that stretch, and has put up 26.8 per game in the NCAAs, including 36 against San Diego State in the Sweet 16. Now, can he drop another 29 on Kentucky, like he did in the Maui Invitational championship game on Nov. 24? UK coach John Calipari did not sound excited about facing Walker again. "I don't want Kemba," Calipari said on Sunday. "I saw Kemba up close and it was not fun. ... We tried four different things [defensively] and none of them worked."
If the Wildcats do find something that works -- and one imagines they will sic long-armed, aggressive, trash-talking stopper DeAndre Liggins on Kemba -- the other Huskies are more than capable of stepping up. Especially rookie Jeremy Lamb, who hit big shot after big shot that made the difference in their Elite Eight win over Arizona, finishing with 19 points to Walker's 20. "He's being the Robin right now," fellow freshman Shabazz Napier said of Lamb. "Kemba's the Batman. He needs a sidekick."
The Unbelievable Thing:
The Big East regular season seems not to have mattered at all. I realize that now, after looking back at UConn's underwhelming February and early (pre-Big East tournament) March. The Huskies' rep was mostly soiled by home losses to Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette and Notre Dame, and Kemba lost serious ground to Jimmer Fredette in the player of the year race due to a major decline in production.
UConn's in-conference efficiency was unimpressive: It ranked 11th among Big East offenses in points per possession (1.022) and eighth among defenses (1.014), finishing with a barely positive efficiency margin. And yet ... outside the league, the Huskies were phenomenal, rolling through Maui and beating Texas in Austin. None of the Big East teams with better efficiency margins -- Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse were well ahead in that category -- are left in the dance. UConn reserved its attention for more important matters than dominating on Big Monday ... and it's the one still standing.