Writers Q&A: The Final Four questions
HOUSTON -- After nearly a week of talk, the games are back. Before Saturday night's tipoff, five of our writers in Texas take one last shot at a few questions and predictions.
What are you most looking forward to Saturday?
Eamonn Brennan: The collision of two of the most unlikely Final Four teams in years. Virginia Commonwealth entered March a decent CAA team that lost its last four regular-season conference games and finished fourth in its own league. Butler came into the tournament playing better, but still only one month removed from a loss at last-place Youngstown State, a 14-9 overall record and a 6-5 start in the Horizon League. But the Bulldogs rediscovered their defense and the Rams discovered some crazy-hot shooting and some feisty uptempo D. A few unforeseen upsets later, both teams find themselves on college basketball's showcase event. These two mid-majors may lack the brand cachet of Kentucky and Connecticut, but this is bound to be the most fascinating, anything-can-happen game of the night. Miss it at your own risk.
Pat Forde: Can the biggest Cinderella of all time continue its roll? Butler we know and love already for its run last year. Backing it up this time around was impressive, but the shiny new object at this Final Four is Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams have charged from the bubble through Dayton, Chicago and San Antonio, winning five games as a No. 11 seed to reach their first Final Four. They've played with admirable confidence and fearlessness; can that (and their hot shooting) continue for one more weekend?
Andy Katz: I want to see how VCU handles the grand stage. The Rams haven't had any issues yet dealing with elite competition, knocking off USC in Dayton, Georgetown and Purdue in Chicago and then Florida State in overtime and, stunningly, Kansas in San Antonio. But playing in front of a possible 70,000-plus is more than VCU has ever entertained. If the Rams come out with the same aggressive attitude they've had for the past month, it may not matter. But if there is any hesitation, Butler could make life very difficult for VCU early in the game.
Diamond Leung: I'm most looking forward to seeing the reactions from the team that wins the Butler-Virginia Commonwealth semifinal game. For Butler, it would be the joy of getting one more shot at representing the little guy in the national championship game. For VCU, how fun would the Rams' postgame dance be if they got a chance to win the national title?
Dana O'Neil: I'm looking forward to the BracketBusters in April. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that either VCU or Butler will play for the national championship. I watched Butler in its first game of the season, a disaster against Louisville. Odds that they'd be here in my mind? There weren't even odds. And I met with VCU players before the Sweet 16. I thought they could beat Florida State, but I'll be honest and say I never envisioned this. I know plenty of people will argue with me, but I happen to believe this is great for college basketball, and I also happen to believe this will be a well-played, high-level game. Whoever advances, it will be a heck of a story.
At the end of the day, whose performance will we be talking about?
Brennan: Keep an eye out for Kentucky's Terrence Jones. Jones is Kentucky's most talented player, but he's also been one of its least-heralded in the week-long run up to the Final Four. That's because his late-season play, while solid, has failed to reach the heights he achieved when he made an early case for national freshman and player of the year honors -- and his teammates have universally stepped up throughout Kentucky's four impressive tournament wins. Jones could be a sneaky pick to have a big-time breakout game versus Connecticut. The matchup issues he presents for the Huskies, who don't have a defensive player that can quite match his athleticism, size or versatility, could be a key to UK's offense and a key to the game.
Forde: DeAndre Liggins' defensive performance. Kentucky's stopper is likely to draw the assignment of guarding Connecticut shooting star Kemba Walker -- and although nobody has stopped the Huskies guard in weeks, Liggins has the length and defensive mindset to be a serious deterrent. Liggins is 6-foot-6, and Walker is generously listed at 6-1. If Liggins can bother Walker as much as he has some other guards this season, UConn will need some huge performances from its supporting cast.
Katz: Kemba Walker. Walker should dazzle on this stage, putting up numbers that could potentially lead the Huskies to a victory over Kentucky. Jimmer Fredette is home. So, too, is Derrick Williams, courtesy of Connecticut. The one player still remaining in this tournament who can elicit the "Wow" factor is Walker. I won't be surprised if he not only scores 20-plus points but also hits a key 3-pointer or, at the very least, gets to the rim to finish at a key juncture.
Leung: Connecticut's Kemba Walker has been spectacular this postseason; look for him to put on another show against Kentucky. He scored 29 against the Wildcats in Maui and is on a hot streak heading into Houston. On college basketball's biggest stage, look for Walker to lead the offense and take the final shot if necessary.
O'Neil: The concentration will be on the name-brand stars Saturday night -- Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight, namely -- but I happen to believe the understudy will steal the headlines. Jeremy Lamb has been the biggest beneficiary of the attention diverted to Walker in this postseason. He's averaging 18.3 points and shooting 59 percent from the field in this NCAA tournament. Like every other team that has faced UConn, Kentucky can ill afford to leave Walker unaccounted for, which is why I suspect the understudy will steal the show.
Butler-VCU: Who wins and why?
Brennan: Butler just needs to hang on. VCU has won its five tournament games by an average margin of 12 points. The reason? Hot 3-point shooting. More often than not, the Rams have been burying seemingly superior opponents in the first half, and from there the Rams stretch the game and never look back. I think Butler guards the Rams well along the 3-point line, keeps VCU's attack from going completely nuts, and makes things tight throughout. And in a tight game, you're loath to go against this group of Bulldogs players. Butler comes away with the win.
Forde: It feels wrong picking either team to lose -- they're both charismatic teams on a great roll and seemingly destined to play for it all. Except that can't happen. So I'm semi-reluctantly going with the Rams. Their pressure defense looks like the key to the game -- and if they can heat up Kansas, it stands to reason they can heat up a Butler team that does not like to play a 94-foot game. VCU must continue to be productive from the 3-point line, which is never easy against Butler. But the Rams shot awfully well in their open practice at Reliant Stadium on Friday. Keep that going one more day and VCU will play for the national title.
Katz: I'm going with Butler here. The Bulldogs should be able to defend VCU on the 3-point line better than any other team that has faced the Rams so far this season. VCU has made 12 3s in three tourney games so far this season. They had a max of 11 during the regular season. Butler should be able to lock in on VCU's shooters, especially with Ronald Nored and Shawn Vanzant defending some of the top shooters. Butler will get its second consecutive shot at winning the national title -- an amazing feat for a small private school nestled in a quiet suburban neighborhood north of Indianapolis
Leung: Let's go with VCU. As much as the Final Four experience helps Butler, it appears that the Rams present plenty of matchup problems, with Joey Rodriguez running the offense and Jamie Skeen's ability to stretch the defense. VCU is the new underdog on the block, and in a game between two teams of destiny, I like Shaka Smart's Rams to come out on top.
O'Neil: Butler wins because of its defense. The Bulldogs will always be in a game because of the way they play, but more because of how they play their opponent. Defending is something that comes naturally to the Bulldogs, not just something they pick up when needed. If Butler is in the game at the end, the Bulldogs -- who play the way their calm-to-nearly-stoic coach coaches -- will win the game.
Kentucky-Connecticut: Who wins and why?
Brennan: Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb have been shredding quality opponents for over a month now, but few of those opponents have the combination of speed, athleticism, strength and length from the guard and small forward spots as this Kentucky team. That's why the Wildcats were able to hold Ohio State's vaunted perimeter attack to 6-of-17 from 3 in the Sweet 16, and I think that factor -- not to mention this efficient team's ability to score against a good but not great UConn defense -- will be the difference in Kentucky's win.
Forde: Kentucky wins because it is long enough to make scoring difficult for Kemba Walker. And because Brandon Knight has gone from good to great. And because Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins have elevated their performances to a previously unimagined level. UConn has had a remarkable run, but the Wildcats have been more impressive in this tournament -- beating Ohio State and North Carolina back-to-back stamped them as the new team to beat for the national title. And they'll play for it Monday.
Katz: Kentucky is the most talented team in the field and is on a roll. The Wildcats won the SEC tournament and had to go through the toughest region (East), knocking off the top seed overall in Ohio State and then the ACC regular-season champ in North Carolina. That said, I'm still leaning toward Connecticut. Kentucky is tougher to defend on the wing, but the Huskies have the best player remaining in the NCAA tournament. Walker may shoot a high percentage of shots, but no one else makes as many timely buckets. He has willed this team to a remarkable nine wins in 19 days. I can see at least one more to get UConn to the national championship game.
Leung: I like Connecticut in this one. Not only do the Huskies have the advantage with Kemba Walker's game-changing abilities, but also they should be able to handle Kentucky on defense. The Huskies have already contained San Diego State's front line and Arizona's Derrick Williams in this tournament. Expect Jeremy Lamb to continue his strong March play as well.
O'Neil: I don't suspect this will go over quite as smoothly as it did in Maui, but I still think Connecticut wins once again. Both Brandon Knight and Kemba Walker have been great this entire season, and especially in this NCAA tournament, but Walker has been more than just a great player. He's been a presence. I watched him will the Huskies to an unexpected Big East tournament title. They didn't just win because Walker hit so many big shots; they won because he wasn't going to let them lose. I think his guts ultimately will take UConn to the title game.