Unlikely Final Four field will vie for title in Houston
In one of the unlikeliest NCAA tournaments ever, Connecticut, Kentucky, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth survived the madness to make the Final Four.
VCU provided the tournament's most shocking result, topping top-seeded Kansas 71-61 on Sunday. The Rams were 10.5-point underdogs entering the game, but sank 12 three-pointers to Kansas' two and made a 14-point halftime lead stand up despite multiple Kansas threats in the second half.
In Sunday's other regional final, Kentucky beat North Carolina 76-69 in a battle of college basketball royalty. Fresehman Brandon Knight led the way for the Wildcats with 22 points.
This is the first time no one-seed or two-seed advanced to the national semifinals. No. 3 seed Connecticut (30-9) is the highest seed left and will play No. 4 seed Kentucky (29-8) in one Saturday semifinal in Houston. No. 8 Butler (27-9) and No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth (28-11) meet in the other semifinal. The two winners play for the national championship April 4 in Houston.
The biggest surprise of the Final Four is VCU, which aims to be the lowest-seeded national champion ever. The Rams squeezed into the 68-team tournament field as an inaugural First Four team, which means they were one of the last four schools selected for the tournament. VCU beat Southern California to reach the round of 64 then ran off four straight upsets (No. 6 Georgetown, No. 3 Purdue, No. 10 Florida State and No. 1 Kansas) to punch its Final Four ticket out of the Southwest region. VCU had never reached the Sweet 16 in its nine previous tournament appearances.
Cinderella VCU matches up with Butler, the darling runner-up to Duke in the 2010 tournament. The Bulldogs endured a trying season to become the first team to reach back-to-back Final Fours without being a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed either year. Their four tournament wins came by a combined 13 points over No. 9 Old Dominion, No. 1 Pittsburgh, No. 4 Wisconsin and, on Saturday in the Southeast regional final, No. 2 Florida. In the process, Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens' stock rocketed as much as any player's has in March. Some are dubbing Stevens, at age 34, the best coach in the country. With two more wins, Butler will become the smallest school (4,640 enrollment) to win a national title since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
UConn may boast the best player in the country. Junior guard Kemba Walker, a sure-fire All-American and a Player of the Year candidate, leads the tournament with 107 points in four games (26.8 per game). Including their five wins in five days in the Big East conference tournament, the Huskies have now won nine straight. By edging Arizona 65-63 in Saturday's West regional final, UConn reached its fourth Final Four, all since 1999 under coach Jim Calhoun.
The Huskies meet Kentucky, which has the most storied program among the Final Four entrants but also the most inexperienced team. The Wildcats have won seven national championships, the last coming in 1998. They ousted No. 2 North Carolina on Sunday for their 14th Final Four appearance, capping a tournament run that included two-point wins over No. 13 Princeton and No. 1 Ohio State in the East region. Coach John Calipari's top three scorers are freshmen: Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, so if the Wildcats are to win the eighth title in school history, they will have to rely on youth.