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Houston: Prepare For Liftoff - Previewing the Final Four

Jessica Benson |
March 31, 2011 | 2:04 a.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Shabazz Napier and the UConn Huskies take on Kentucky on Saturday. (Robert Mora)
Shabazz Napier and the UConn Huskies take on Kentucky on Saturday. (Robert Mora)
After a tournament filled with Cinderellas and surprises, overtimes and last-second nail biters, and players with not so ordinary names (think Jimmer and Kemba), the madness of March has finally come to a conclusion. 

Butler, UConn, VCU and Kentucky shot for the moon and have now landed in Houston for the 2011 Final Four.


When the Bulldogs lost to Duke in December, it seemed they were a one-hit wonder destined to sink back into anonymity. 

Nothing could have been more false.

Butler showed up in this tournament as an eight seed ready to defy all odds. Still it has been anything but a smooth trip to Houston. The Bulldogs have left their fans on the edge in three of their four tournament wins.

Senior Matt Howard secured the team’s first win over Old Dominion with a lucky last second tip-in after a trip and ingenious cover-up by Shawn Vanzant. The Bulldogs went on to win 60-58.

That was high drama, but the most controversial and exciting of Butler’s matchups came in their defeat of No. 1-seeded Pitt.  Many March Madness fans cried over their brackets after an inexplicable set of fouls from both teams in the final two seconds of the game. But it was the Bulldogs who received the last free throw and once again Howard saved the day with a made shot, this time a free throw resulting in a 71-70 win.

Following Saturday’s 74-71 overtime thriller against Florida, Butler will return to the Final Four for the second year in a row, proving the glass slipper fits once again.  Led by 36-year-old coach Brad Stevens, the Bulldogs are ready to face this year’s new underdog success story: the VCU Rams.


Freshman guard Brandon Knight, and the Wildcats busted brackets everywhere with their defeat of overall No. 1 seed Ohio State.  By knocking down a 15-foot jump shot with five seconds remaining in the game, Knight proceeded to knock down just about everyone who still had a hope of winning their NCAA pool.

After Sunday’s strong finish against No. 2-seeded North Carolina, the Wildcats of Kentucky are the lone team representing the East Division.

Kentucky lost to the Tar Heels earlier this season, but came back with a vengeance in the Elite Eight. They refused to let UNC regain its composure in the second half and rode senior center, Josh Harrellson to a 76-69 victory.

Knight led all scorers with 22 points. Harrellson finished with 12.

The Wildcats earned their place in this year’s tournament with an SEC Tournament win over Florida and have continued to prove their superior talent throughout the Big Dance.

Kentucky came close to slipping up in the opening round against No. 13 Princeton, but, similar to their matchup with Ohio State, Knight managed to override 39 scoreless minutes with a game-winning, final-second layup. He’s been arguably the most clutch player in the Tournament so far.

The Wildcats’ upcoming game against UConn marks their 14th appearance in the Final Four, but it is just their first appearance since being crowned champions in 1998.

Coach John Calipari last visited the Final Four in 2008 as the coach of the Memphis Tigers, when he took Derrick Rose to the championship game but ultimately lost to Kansas. Since becoming the head coach of Kentucky last year, Calipari enjoyed great success. He led the Wildcats to the Elite 8 as a No. 1 seed last season. This year they could very well compete for the championship.

The Wildcats will take on Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies Saturday in what is sure to be a battle of the guards in Houston.

Photo courtesy of @jose3030.
Photo courtesy of @jose3030.

This year’s ultimate Cinderella story comes courtesy of the first team to go from the “First Four” to the Final Four.  The Pac-10, Big 10, Big East, ACC and Big 12 were merely small obstacles for the VCU Rams of the Colonial Athletic Association. 

VCU sealed the deal Sunday afternoon with an impressive win over No. 1-seeded Kansas.

The Rams came out strong, leading throughout the entire first half. The Kansas bench looked like it was watching a train wreck. Fans appeared to be near tears well before the second half began. VCU was up 14 at halftime and, as much as Kansas tried to recover in the last 20 minutes, the Rams refused to back down. They won by 10, 71-61.

VCU began the tournament with a win against the USC Trojans in a play-in game in Dayton, OH and have been on an unstoppable roll since.  Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and now Kansas have all been stunned by the team who didn’t even watch the selection show because they thought they had no chance of getting into the tournament. 

Commentator and former Duke player Jay Bilas claimed at the beginning of the tournament that VCU should not have received a bid over teams like Colorado and Virginia Tech.

Dick Vitale went so far as to rant that picking VCU over Colorado was like “picking Roseanne Barr over Scarlett Johansson in a beauty contest.”

But a blessing from Bilas or a seal of approval from Vitale is not a requisite to make it far in the Tournament. Shaka Smart and co. have proved America wrong and will take on the Butler Bulldogs in the school’s first Final Four appearance Saturday.


The lone rangers remaining from the Big East conference, the Huskies are headed to their first Final Four since 2009.  UConn began its latest run with a Big East Conference championship after unexpectedly winning five games in a row at Madison Square Garden.

Many speculated that UConn would be too worn down by their conference tournament success to live up to their No. 3 seeding in the Tournament, but superstar Kemba Walker and his teammates have had no problem living up to the hype.

Prior to Saturday’s final-minute win over the University of Arizona, the Huskies had won each of their last three games convincingly.  

Thanks in large part to Walker, a Player of the Year candidate, UConn enters the Final Four on a nine-game winning streak.

In the NCAA Tournament alone, Walker has scored 107 points to go along with 27 assists and 21 rebounds.  He and freshman Jeremy Lamb, who scored 19 points in the Huskies’ win over Arizona, have combined to score 70 percent of UConn’s points in the last three games.

This is Coach Jim Calhoun’s fourth time leading UConn to the Final Four. He previously led the Huskies to championships in 1999 and 2004. 


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