Expect Final Four to feature unexpected
Either Butler or Virginia Commonwealth will play for the national championship next Monday in Houston.
Neither was a lock to even make the NCAA tournament before Championship Week. Butler was 6-5 in the Horizon at one point and VCU lost its final four regular-season conference games. But then the Bulldogs won at Milwaukee to take the Horizon League tournament title, and VCU's at-large profile was deemed good enough for the selection committee after reaching the Colonial final and losing to Old Dominion.
Maybe that shouldn't be a shock. In the six Final Fours from 2006 to 2011, the CAA (two) and Horizon (two) have each sent more teams than the Big 12 (one). The Horizon also has more Final Four victories (one) in that span than the Big East, which hasn't won a game at the event since Connecticut's 2004 national championship.
As for this year's UConn, the Huskies won the Maui Invitational, defeated Texas in Austin and finished the nonconference 12-0, but ended up tied for ninth in the Big East regular season (9-9) and were forced to play on Tuesday at the conference tournament in New York.
The Big East instituted the Tuesday-Saturday setup to accommodate the 16-team league three years ago. In the previous two seasons, no team had come close to winning five games in five days. UConn did it this March -- and then won four more in the Big Dance.
Kentucky was a celebrated preseason team and one of the favorites to win the SEC despite losing five players to the first round of the NBA draft, four of which were freshmen. The Wildcats were counting on heralded freshman big man Enes Kanter to fill the void left by DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton.
But Kanter, who was pegged as a top-five NBA draft pick, was ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA for the expenses he received while a member of a Turkish club team as a teenager. Kentucky struggled to win on the road for most of the SEC, but then finished the regular season with wins over Florida and Vanderbilt at home and at Tennessee. The Wildcats haven't lost since. They won the SEC tournament in Atlanta and were the No. 4 seed in arguably the toughest region on the bracket. The Cats then got past the Ivy champ (Princeton), a scrappy West Virginia, the No. 1 overall seed and Big Ten regular-season and tournament champ Ohio State and the ACC regular-season champ in North Carolina.
How unlikely is the foursome that will gather in Houston later this week? Two people that took part in ESPN.com's Tournament Challenge -- two out of nearly 6 million brackets -- picked this Final Four. The rest of us thought it nearly impossible. This is, after all, the first Final Four in history that doesn't include at least one No. 1 or 2 seed. It's also easily the highest combined seed total (26) in the event's history.
Sure, Jim Calhoun of UConn has won two titles and been to one other Final Four, and Kentucky's John Calipari has been this far twice while at Memphis and UMass. But Butler's veteran players like Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard, Shawn Vanzant and Zach Hahn actually contributed in Final Four games.
There have been plenty of great moments in this NCAA tournament so far. But there's also a good chance that what occurs this weekend in Houston will top what has already happened in the tournament.
Now on to the teams:
East Regional Champion
No. 4 Kentucky (29-8, 10-6 in the SEC)
Tourney run: Kentucky could easily have been out in its first game versus Princeton, but Brandon Knight beat the Tigers with a late jumper. Hey, every Final Four team tends to get at least one scare. The Wildcats then pulled away from West Virginia before Knight's thrilling shot beat Ohio State in the Sweet 16 in New Jersey. The Wildcats kept North Carolina at arm's reach in the Elite Eight victory Sunday. No team in the Final Four had to go through a tougher road than Kentucky.
Early-season buzz: The Wildcats once again loaded up with a heralded freshman class, led by Knight, Terrence Jones and Kanter. Kanter never got eligible and the Cats were expected to struggle inside. Still, it was asking a lot of Kentucky to repeat what it did a season ago after losing five players to the first round of the NBA draft. Falling at North Carolina, losing to Connecticut by 17 in the Maui final, and then struggling to close out road SEC games in the first half of the season were more indicative of youth than lack of talent.
Top three storylines
1. Kentucky coach John Calipari leads his third program to the Final Four after taking UMass (1996) and Memphis (2008) there.
2. The Wildcats lean heavily on production from freshmen and upperclassmen who were barely role players on last season's Elite Eight team.
3. UK has a chance to win its first national championship since 1998, the last time the historic program was in the Final Four.
Old news: Kanter who? Kanter's absence was a major story, maybe the Kentucky story for the first three months of the season. The Wildcats were considered a long shot to win the national title without him. Now, Kentucky may enter Houston as the favorite -- without him. Senior forward Josh Harrellson has been more than serviceable in his place.
Big-shot maker: Knight. Once again, Calipari has a point guard who can create, make plays and take the game-winning shot. He has done it so far twice in this tournament to knock off Princeton and Ohio State.
Karma: Kentucky lost to North Carolina in the regular season in Chapel Hill and beat the Tar Heels for the Final Four berth. Up next in the national semifinals is Connecticut, which beat Kentucky in the Maui final in November.
Advantage: Kentucky has the best traveling fan base. UK is the lower seed against Connecticut, but expect the Wildcats to be the home team with many more fans at Reliant Stadium.
West Regional Champion
No. 3 Connecticut (30-9 overall, 9-9 Big East)
Tourney run: Connecticut was destined to get a higher NCAA tournament seed than its Big East tourney seed based on its 12-0 nonconference record and the quality of the wins during that stretch. But the five-game Big East tournament championship that included knocking off Georgetown, top-seeded Pitt at the buzzer, Syracuse in overtime and then Louisville by three in the championship game set up a No. 3 seed for the Huskies. UConn wasn't challenged at all by Bucknell or in the second half by Cincinnati in its first two games, but had to survive a furious charge from San Diego State to beat the Aztecs in Anaheim. Then, in yet another thrilling flurry, UConn's Walker hit a key shot to extend the Huskies' lead to five points late against Arizona and then was fortunate as two 3s didn't fall for the Cats, sending the Huskies to their second Final Four in three years.
Early-season buzz: The Huskies had low expectations and were rightfully picked 10th in the Big East due to their overall reliance on a cast of freshmen who were relatively unknown nationally and a lead guard in Walker who hadn't demonstrated an ability to take over games after the Huskies failed to make the NCAA tournament last season. But the perception of UConn changed dramatically when it stunned a loaded Maui Invitational field and won the title in Hawaii by knocking off a mid-major favorite in Wichita State, a preseason national favorite in Michigan State and vaunted Kentucky. Losing at Pitt and Notre Dame on the road didn't derail the good vibes, especially with a dramatic overtime road win at Texas and a home humbling of Tennessee in mid-January before a rough 4-7 Big East skid from late January to late February.
Top three storylines:
1. Walker is the only remaining national player of the year candidate who has a chance to lead his team to the national title.
2. UConn coach Jim Calhoun has a shot to win his third national championship, elevating him above North Carolina's Roy Williams and Florida's Billy Donovan into second place behind Duke's Mike Krzyzewski (four) among active coaches.
3. The Huskies could once again win both the men's and women's national championships in the same season, like they did in 2004. The women's team is the favorite to capture the title in Indianapolis next week.
Old news: UConn started the season with Calhoun in front of the NCAA Committee on Infractions. Calhoun missed the first practice. He was later cited for failing to create an atmosphere of compliance and was given a three-game suspension for the 2011-12 Big East season. The news rattled Calhoun, but it didn't affect the team one bit.
Big-shot maker: Walker. There is no one else in the Final Four who you would want to take a last-possession shot more than Walker. His shooting percentage may fluctuate but he's as timely a shooter/shot-maker as there is in the field.
Karma: This is the Huskies' fourth Final Four appearance and each one came out of the West Regional. The Huskies won the first two, and lost in the third when they had to play Michigan State in Detroit in 2009.
Advantage: Having the best player (Walker) in the Final Four is clearly an edge for the Huskies, but Calhoun's experience in this event and ability to steer a young team -- with Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Alex Oriakhi all experiencing this for the first time -- should help calm any nerves.
Southwest Regional Champion
No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth (28-11 overall, 12-6 in the CAA)
Tourney run: The Rams' sprint to the Final Four is quite honestly the most impressive since the bracket expanded in 1985. Sure, fellow CAA member George Mason pulled off a similar feat in 2006 as an 11-seed by beating Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut. But the Patriots were considered to be a real player to get an at-large berth during the latter part of the regular season and of course the Patriots weren't treated like a wild-card road team that had to play an extra game just to make it onto the main bracket. VCU was one of the last at-large teams selected into the field, falling somewhere on the 34-37 line on the selection committee's S-curve. VCU had to beat USC in Ohio on a Tuesday and then head to Chicago to beat Georgetown, which it did handily, before besting adopted home team Purdue in stunningly easy fashion by 18 points. That still may go down as the most surprising result in the NCAA tournament. The Rams were finally "tested" by Florida State in the Sweet 16, beating the Noles in overtime in San Antonio before pulling off one of the biggest upsets in recent memory by holding off Kansas by 10 points after the top-seeded Jayhawks looked to be the overwhelming favorite Sunday as the lone remaining No. 1 seed.
Early-season buzz: The Rams were a chic pick to contend in the CAA for the title, but not more than Old Dominion or George Mason, and the Rams didn't have the star that Hofstra had in Charles Jenkins. The Rams actually finished below Hofstra in the CAA standings, two games behind the Pride, who tied with the Monarchs for second place. VCU got lucky that the NIT season tipoff committee placed the Rams in the Wake Forest bracket to get to New York instead of Villanova's or Tennessee's. The Rams could have won those road games, but it would have been less likely. Taking care of Wake easily put VCU in position to pick up some good buzz early in the season with a win over UCLA and a near-win against Tennessee. But there were also losses to rival Richmond, at South Florida in overtime and at UAB before a disappointing road loss at Georgia State that seemed to zap the positive perception of the Rams by the first week in January.
Top three storylines:
1. VCU is playing in its first Final Four and can deliver a national championship for the deep and now increasingly respected CAA.
2. If Butler's Brad Stevens is the hottest coach in the country then VCU's Shaka Smart is now at 1A with his ability to turn the Rams into a tournament-tested crew that can slay giants right and left.
3. The Rams are making iconic campus stars out of Joey Rodriguez, Bradford Burgess and Jamie Skeen, who might feel like the most fortunate of any of the players since he escaped Wake Forest before it crumbled.
Old news: VCU's inclusion into the field was a story on Selection Sunday. But discussing whether the Rams belonged in the field no longer matters, considering the teams they have beaten to get to Houston. VCU will be playing its first team outside a power six conference in the national semifinal -- its sixth game of the tournament. VCU has earned this spot.
Big-shot maker: Burgess converted the layup to beat Florida State. He made 6 of 7 3s in the win over the Seminoles, 3 of 4 against Purdue, 2 of 4 against Georgetown and made 2 of 3 to help beat Kansas. Burgess will get defended tighter by Butler but he has proved the past two weeks he's not afraid to take and make the big shot.
Karma: George Mason was an 11-seed and a CAA at-large in 2006. VCU was an 11 and a CAA at-large in 2011. Something was magical about Mason that year and clearly the Rams have a similar mojo going and have done this as even more of an underdog. At least Mason played UConn as a No. 11 in Washington, D.C., in '06 in what was a clear advantage at the Verizon Center.
Advantage: Butler is hardly a slouch. But VCU won't feel as overwhelmed in the post against the Bulldogs as it may have going into games against Purdue, FSU and Kansas, let alone USC and Georgetown. The Rams have a legit shot to get to the national title game with a wave of emotion similar to Butler's a year ago.
Southeast Regional Champion
No. 8 Butler (27-9 overall, 13-5 in Horizon League)
Tourney run: VCU's run to the Final Four is the most improbable of any of the four teams in Houston. But Butler's qualifies as the most dramatic. The Bulldogs could have easily been knocked out in their first game when they needed a last-second shot by Matt Howard to beat Old Dominion at the buzzer. The Bulldogs should have lost to Pitt in the next round, too. Shelvin Mack committed an unbelievable foul for a player of his experience when he bumped Gilbert Brown at midcourt. Brown made the first free throw, missed the second and then Nasir Robinson hacked Howard on a rebound in the final second. The game was heading to overtime but the foul put Howard at the line for the win. Butler then went to New Orleans, where it blitzed Wisconsin at the start and then held on to win by seven. Florida had Butler down 11 in the Elite Eight game with under 10 to go, but the Bulldogs chipped away and sent the game to overtime. Questionable shot selection by Florida's Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker led to a Butler victory and a second consecutive trip to the Final Four.
Early-season buzz: Butler was ranked in the preseason but took on too much by agreeing to open up Louisville's KFC Yum! Center, where they were promptly blown out. The Bulldogs lost at home to Evansville and then survived against Loyola by two before losing to Duke by 12 in a game in which Mack didn't play late due to cramping. They fell at Xavier in a close, but did show some resurgence in Hawaii by winning the Diamond Head Classic with wins over Florida State and Washington State. But the Horizon League was unkind as Butler got swept by Milwaukee and suffered through a humbling three-game losing skid to Milwaukee, Valparaiso and Youngstown State, the latter two on the road. Butler got on a roll to get a three-way share of the Horizon League title. Butler's sweep of Cleveland State proved to be key -- it gave the Bulldogs the second seed in the tournament and allowed the Bulldogs a bye to the semifinals. Butler had to beat the Vikings again before earning the automatic berth and only Horizon League bid by winning the conference title in a rowdy road atmosphere at Milwaukee.
Top three storylines:
1. Butler is attempting to pull off a remarkable second consecutive national title game appearance, accomplished by Florida in 2006-07 and not many others in the modern era.
2. Butler coach Brad Stevens continues to show incredible poise under pressure as he leads the Bulldogs back to the Final Four.
3. The leadership of Howard and Mack has been akin to what the Gators were able to get from their core players during their consecutive title appearances.
Old news: Butler's role as Cinderella. The Bulldogs have more experience in this Final Four than any other team in Houston. Butler capturing the national championship with wins over VCU and then either Kentucky or UConn would still be historic. But VCU's inclusion and Butler's repeat performance in the Final Four make it seem less of an upset at this juncture.
Big-shot maker: Howard seems to be in the right place at the right time for the loose ball putbacks, but Mack is the golden boy for making big shots when the game matters most. He did it against Pitt and certainly delivered in the win over Florida. He's not as quick to the basket as Kemba Walker, Brandon Knight or maybe even Joey Rodriguez, but he's stronger and may be a more consistent shooter.
Karma: Butler has more karma in this event than any of the other three teams in the Final Four. The stars seem to be aligned for the Bulldogs to win the national championship with an 11-seed in the semifinals, even with the Rams being scorching hot at this time. Butler even had a seldom-used player in Chrishawn Hopkins make a 3-pointer at a crucial point of the win over Florida.
Advantage: Experience. Yes, the Bulldogs have more than any other team in the Final Four. Butler won't be awed by the event as much as VCU will be or for that matter the players on Kentucky or Connecticut, save Walker. Butler comes into Houston as the team that understands the magnitude of the event more than any other squad and that has to mean something. Then again, that newness didn't seem to bother Butler last season, so who knows. It'll just be one more unpredictable element in this year's historically unpredictable tournament.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.