If there was ever a perilous time to be a professional prognosticator, this is it. In case you haven't noticed, we so-called experts have been turned on our heads during this unforgettable NCAA tournament. You might say we've been Shaka'd. That might not be great for us, but it sure is great for the sport. All season long the rule in college hoops has been to expect the unexpected. So nobody should be surprised that our picks have been so wrong so often. Of course, we like it when our picks turn out to be correct, but isn't being wrong half the fun? (That's called rationalizing. I've gotten good at it.)
The jig is up. We "experts" are guessing, just like you. We can break down these matchups for hours on end, but they always come down to the simple things -- who is making shots, who is staying healthy and out of foul trouble, who is getting the lucky bounces. If you assess all four teams that have alighted in Houston, you can make a case both for and against each one to be the team that will hoist the big trophy on Monday night. What follows below are my reasons to pick -- and not pick -- each of the Final Four teams. Don't worry, I'm not straddling the fence the whole way. I've made my official picks at the conclusion of the column. Fortunately, this tournament only has three games left, so I only have three more opportunities to be wrong.
VCU has likewise overachieved at the defensive end. During the season they allowed opponents to shoot 43.6 percent, which ranked eighth in the conference. During the tournament they're holding opponents to 39 percent from the field and 23 percent from three. This is clearly a team that has found its identity on both ends of the floor.
But didn't Butler play well in the Final Four last year without having been there, done that? Yes, but that's largely because the things that Butler does best (namely defend and control pace) translates much easier to a football-stadium environment than three-point shooting. Plus, the players got to sleep in their own beds and play in front of their home crowd last year. That had to help them relax.
The Wildcats' talent has been obvious from Day 1, but it is only in the last four weeks that the team has really jelled. There are two main differences between UK now and UK in January. The first is the team's commitment to defense, which has been enhanced by the invaluable contributions of glue guy DeAndre Liggins. The second is the ability to finish off games. For much of the regular season, Kentucky's biggest problem was an inability to win on the road in the conference, but four of its five SEC road losses came by four points or fewer. No player better evinces this maturation than freshman point guard Brandon Knight, who hit game-winning buckets against Princeton and Ohio State despite shooting a combined 4-for-18 from the field and 1-for-7 from three-point range. Now that their maturity is catching up to their talent, these 'Cats are awfully tough to beat.
Walker is a great example of a guy who knows how to play well when he's not playing well. Though he has not shot a high percentage in the NCAA tournament, he has still gotten more than his share of assists, steals and rebounds, and of course he has perfected the art of the clutch shot. The best thing about Walker is the way he has learned to trust his freshman teammates, especially Jeremy Lamb, who might be the best pro prospect in Saturday night's matchup with Kentucky. Walker set the tone in the second round when he had 12 assists to just two turnovers in a thrashing of Bucknell. He is putting up incredible numbers while also making his teammates better, and that is very, very hard to do.
This weakness will make it nearly impossible for UConn to get Harrellson in foul trouble. That begets a troubling cycle: The more time Harrellson spends on the floor, the harder it will be for UConn to score in the paint.
Here goes nothing.
• I'm taking Butler (score prediction: 64-60) in Saturday night's first game because I think VCU is due for a return to normalcy, and I like the Bulldogs' Final Four experience.
• I'm taking UConn (77-76 in OT) in the nightcap because I don't believe Kemba Walker will let his team lose.
If past is prologue, those picks should be welcome news for fans of VCU and Kentucky. This is, after all, the 2011 NCAA tournament, where the experts ask all the right questions but produce very few right answers.