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2011 Final Four Series: Which Run is Most Impressive?

Amazing.

One word describes the run this team has made to the Final Four. Who would have guessed that, judging by the regular season, they would make it this far? With all of the obstacles in their way, they proceeded to shock the college basketball world with their achievements to reach the pinnacle of the NCAA Tournament.

Now, you tell me – which Final Four team am I talking about?

Short answer: I’m talking about all four of them.

Now, sure, judging by the description above, it would be easy to think that I was obviously talking about the Rams of Virginia Commonwealth. After all, despite criticisms of their entrance into the NCAA Tournament, including myself, no one can deny that VCU has shown the entire country they were among the best teams in the NCAA. They blazed a trail through a host of big-conference teams, including Georgetown, Purdue and Kansas, on their Cinderella run to the Final Four. Even more impressively, they took them all down by double-digits. In other words, the Rams didn’t just defeat their opponents: they beat them into submission.

VCU F Jamie Skeen (left) and head coach Shaka Smart have defied all odds to reach the Final Four.

With a brash coach in Shaka Smart, that mirrors the attitude and intensity of his team, the Rams have shown the country what they were capable of, ever since their first round game vs. USC. Statistically, F Jamie Skeen has led the Rams in the tournament, averaging 15.6 points and 6.8 rebounds, including a 26-point explosion against top-seeded Kansas in the Elite 8. G Joey Rodriguez is their consummate field general, averaging 7.6 assists for the tourney. Their outside shooting has also proven a crucial factor: while averaging only 37.0% from 3-point land in the regular season, the Rams have hit 53-of-151 on threes for the tournament, or a staggering 43.8% three-point percentage. There is no doubt that the once-overlooked VCU is the hottest, and most dangerous, team going into the Final Four.

However, that is not taking anything away from the other three combatants for the coveted NCAA title. For example, we have VCU’s Final Four opponent, the Butler Bulldogs. Similar to VCU in many ways, Butler was also overlooked as a tournament team, despite reaching the National Championship game just a year ago, and coming to within a half-court heave of winning it all. Winning their conference tournament for an automatic bid, not many thought that Brad Stevens’ squad, who lost their best player (F Gordon Hayward) to the NBA draft in 2010, would do much after the second round. In fact, some believed they wouldn’t even get past Old Dominion on the first full day of competition.

But, once again, fate was on their side. In a nail-biter against ODU, F Matt Howard accounted for a game-winning tip-in at the buzzer to advance to the third round meeting with top-seeded Pittsburgh. Butler’s fortunes continued as one of the wildest finishes in the tournament resulted in a last-second foul by Pitt’s Nasir Robinson on Howard, who sealed the victory with one free throw to advance to the Sweet 16. After dominating 4-seeded Wisconsin for 30 minutes to advance to the Elite 8, they found themselves in a battle against 2-seeded Florida. However, on the strength of G Shelvin Mack’s tournament-high 27 points, Butler battled back from a 9-point deficit in the final minutes to send the game into OT. They subsequently finished off the Gators, 74-71, to advance to their second straight Final Four.

With brilliant play from Matt Howard (right) and Shelvin Mack, Butler finds themselves in their second straight Final Four.

Ironically enough, Butler’s amazing exploits were overshadowed by the more shocking VCU run. But, to put their accomplishment in perspective, Butler is the first non-Power Six Conference team to reach the Final Four in consecutive years since the UNLV Rebels of 1990-1991. Despite the fact that Stevens admitted Florida head coach Billy Donovan “outcoached” him in their Elite 8 game on Saturday, he has not let the big stage overcome him or his Bulldogs. While wins of 2, 1, 7 and 3 points (respectively) were not as dominant as VCU’s, the fact that a mid-major out of the Horizon League could stand up to some of the most imposing teams in the country two years in a row has to say something about the team’s outstanding character.

While the other two semifinalists – UConn and Kentucky – could not really be considered as “Cinderellas”, per se (and, arguably, Butler’s success could omit that moniker, as well), their roads to the Final Four are no less impressive. Despite starting off the season with a 17-3 record through January, with a young and talented team headed by Junior G Kemba Walker, the Huskies proceeded to finish the season on a 4-6 funk. This was all under the prospect of head coach Jim Calhoun’s recruiting sanctions hanging over his head, putting his future with the program in question. Considered a bubble team headed to the Big East Tournament, not many knew what to make of the Calhoun-led squad. Then, as a 9-seed with a 9-9 record in Big East regular season play, UConn went on an unprecedented postseason tear. Led by a perennial Player of the Year candidate in Walker, and freshman G Jeremy Lamb, the Huskies rattled off five straight wins in five days to win the Big East Tournament title, and a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

POY Candidate Kemba Walker (left) and Jeremy Lamb have gone on an unprecedented marathon run to the Final Four.

With some thinking the fatigue of the marathon run to the Big East title catching up with them at the Big Dance, UConn proceeded to prove doubters wrong again. They proceeded to lay waste to 14-seeded Bucknell by 29 in the 2nd round, and beat conference rival Cincinnati to reach the Sweet 16. The Huskies then relied on their most prolific scorers, Walker and Lamb, combining for 60 of their 74 points to get past MWC upstart, and regional dark horse, San Diego State. They subsequently dispatched with a tough Arizona team, led by Sophomore F Derrick Williams, who crushed tourney favorite Duke to reach the Elite 8. With an unheard-of 9 postseason wins in 19 days, the Huskies’ fatigue has been a non-factor – possibly a product of UConn’s young legs and surprising poise under pressure.

This is perhaps something the Huskies and their Final Four opponent – the Kentucky Wildcats – have in common. With John Calipari leading his third different team to a Final Four appearance, it cannot be overlooked that he accomplished the feat after losing five players to the NBA. With a de facto super squad in 2010 that comprised of five first-round draft picks – John Wall (No. 1 overall), DeMarcus Cousins (No. 5 overall), Patrick Patterson (No. 14 overall), Eric Bledsoe (No. 18 overall) and Daniel Orton (No. 29 overall) – the Wildcats were stopped short of a Final Four berth. This season, Calipari was essentially forced to start from scratch, relying on fresh talent and veteran play to maintain dominance in the SEC. With talented freshmen like Brandon Knight, Terrance Jones and Doron Lamb leading the way, the Wildcats finished the season with a 25-8 record, a second-place finish in the SEC East, and an SEC Tournament title.

UK head coach John Calipari (right) leads a new crop of talent, led by Brandon Knight, to new heights in the NCAAs.

Despite needing a last-second shot by Knight – and his only points of the game – to beat upstart Ivy Leaguer, and 13-seeded Princeton in the 2nd round, they went on a poised run to the regional championship. Along the way, the Wildcats shocked the tourney favorite, and No. 1 overall seed, Ohio State Buckeyes. While Knight has risen as the face of the team, with performances of 30 points vs. West Virginia, and 22 vs. UNC, Senior F Josh Harrellson has been UK’s most consistent scoring threat, averaging 14.8 p0ints and 9.0 rebounds in the tournament. With a less-heralded roster than the one he had in 2010, Calipari is two wins away from an elusive NCAA championship – which, in the scheme of things, is deceptively understated, but nonetheless amazingly impressive.

While all four teams have experienced unlikely and, at times, astounding runs to the Final Four, one thing is clear – all of them have earned the right to play for the NCAA title. However, I leave it to you – is there one resume that rises above the rest?

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