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.
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Reason to pick them: They're the hottest team left. No school in recent memory has outperformed its regular season quite like these Rams. This is especially true with regard to their three-point shooting. During the season, VCU was ranked seventh in the CAA in three-point shooting at 35.7 percent. During the NCAA tournament they have made nearly 44 percent. Their top three leading scorers in the tournament are making a combined 52 percent from behind the arc. Senior forward Jamie Skeen made 25 three-pointers all season, but he drilled four against Kansas.
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.
Reason not to pick them: They can't possibly keep this up. True, it didn't seem possible that VCU could make it this far, but at some point the Rams have to float back to Earth, right? They've had another week of hype to deal with, and they're coming to Houston with distractions they've never encountered before. They're also going to experience playing in the middle of a football stadium for the first time, with its cavernous atmosphere and strange sight lines. It's a lot harder to make half your three-pointers under those circumstances. It's also hard not to think about George Mason's storied run to the 2006 Final Four, which ended with a drubbing at the hands of eventual champion Florida. That history could very well repeat itself Saturday.
Reason to pick them: They've been there, done that. Imagine being a No. 8 seed from the Horizon League and making it to the Final Four ... and having to play the part of Goliath when you get there. But if you're a believer in the benefits of Final Four experience (which I am), then you take note that Butler is the only team full of players who have actually competed in a Final Four. (Kemba Walker is the only player on UConn who participated in the Final Four two years ago.)
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.
Reason not to pick them: Their luck is bound to run out. The Bulldogs' march to this year's Final Four is even more unexpected than last year's. In 2010, Butler was a 5 seed whose only really close call before the Final Four came in the second round against 13th-seeded Murray State. They beat Syracuse in the Sweet 16 by four points and Kansas State in the regional final by seven. This year Butler had to survive three crazy endings just to make it to Houston: Matt Howard's buzzer beater against Old Dominion, the wild foul fest at the end of the Pittsburgh game and an overtime win over Florida that required the Gators to miss several opportunities at game-winning three-pointers. Don't you just get the feeling Butler has used up all its lives?
Reason to pick them: They're the most talented team in Houston. If you define "talent" as having a future in the NBA, then Kentucky is the team for you. That includes big Josh Harrellson, who has played his way onto the radar of scouts and GMs the last few weeks.
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.
Reason not to pick them: They're the youngest team in Houston. At each successive stage of the NCAA tournament, the perils of inexperience tend to get exposed more and more. Yes, UConn is also dependent on a bunch of freshmen, as well as a sophomore in 6-foot-9 forward Alex Oriakhi, but Kemba Walker, their leader and most important player, is a junior. Kentucky's leader and most important player is Knight. He and his greenhorn classmates, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, don't seem to have been fazed by the crucible of the tournament so far, but you have to factor in the very real possibility that they will be a rattled playing on such a big stage.
Reason to pick them: Kemba. It has been a long, long time since any player has had a month, much less a season, like the one Walker just had. It started in November, when he averaged 30 points per game while leading the Huskies to the Maui Invitational (including a 29-point performance in a championship rout of Kentucky) and carried right through his epic five-wins-in-five-days march through the Big East tournament.
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.
Reason not to pick them: Lack of inside scoring. Oriakhi has evolved into a dependable rebounder and shot blocker, but if UConn needs to throw it to him in the post to win this game, it's going to be in trouble. Oriakhi has made a total of nine field goals in the NCAA tournament and has yet to hit double-figure scoring. Ditto for freshman center Tyler Olander. He played well during the Big East tournament and continues to start, but he played a total of 10 minutes against San Diego State and Arizona.
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.