VCU-Butler makes for a great story -- but not during the Final Four
Butler (Brad Stevens) and VCU (Shaka Smart) are led by two likable coaches
But neither team has the cachet to hold a TV nation's attention in the Final Four
Be honest: If VCU and Butler played on ESPN3 in December ... would you watch?
Of course, we want to see VCU coach Shaka Smart atop the ladder Monday night. Who could escape the singular irony in a coach named Smart, quoting from the movie Dumb and Dumber?
"One of my sisters showed me something where it said Kansas now has a 44 percent chance of winning the national championship,'' Smart, 33, announced Saturday, a day before Kansas had zero percent chance of winning a national championship. "We have a point-nine-percent chance. It's kind of like that movie Dumb and Dumber: 'So, you're saying we've got a chance?' ''
Something like that. Though dumb and dumber also could describe Dick Vitale, Jay Bilas, you, me and anyone else who dismissed VCU as an impostor on Selection Sunday.
Of course, we'd like to see Brad Stevens, 34, bump his bifocals on the rim in Houston at about 11:30 ET Monday night. He almost had the honor last year. If only Gordon Hayward's win-a-million-bucks shot from near halfcourt had swished instead of clanged ...
Butler would have beaten Duke, and we'd be measuring Stevens' Springfield suit: Forty-four Very Regular. But it wouldn't have the same feeling it does now. The first love is the best.
Stevens is a guy who congratulated Florida coach Billy Donovan and the Gators players Saturday after Butler's win, before he embraced his own team. He's a guy who offered this lovely rejoinder, when someone asked him if his second consecutive trip to the Final Four was "unbelievable'':
"Believable is a better term," Stevens said. "It's a more positive term. It makes you live life a little bit better. It makes you more thankful for the opportunities.''
The best video of the weekend was not of Arizona's Derrick Williams, monster-slamming over half of UConn's defense, or of the acreage of abdomen between Charles Barkley's belt buckle and the bottom button of his blazer. It was of Stevens late in the Florida game, score tied, grinning and loving life as timeout had been called, mouthing the word "Now!'' over and over. As in, Now is our time. And it was.
Who could cheer against Shaka and Stevens, both smart, who combined are younger than 68-year-old UConn coach Jim Calhoun?
VCU and Butler are what The Madness is all about. Without such wondrous anarchy, the NCAA tournament would be just another excuse to watch sports on TV. You might as well have a Bowl Championship Series or something.
Yeah, but ...
If Butler and VCU were playing in December on ESPN3.com, would you watch?
Not relevant, you say?
Oh, but it is.
They're the same teams now as then. The same clubs that lost to Youngstown State (Butler) and Georgia State (VCU), respectively. Youngstown finished the year with an RPI of 295. If YSU was a TV show, it'd be a test pattern. Georgia State skidded in at 223.
Butler lost twice to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the Panthers even rested Prince Fielder on those nights. To be fair, Milwaukee did win 19 games and reach the first-round of the NIT. But you get the drift.
It takes a curmudgeonly elitist to suggest the Rams and Bulldogs don't belong in Houston this weekend. It takes a guy who looks at a carriage and sees a pumpkin, who would swipe Dorothy's slippers before she ever thought about clicking her heels three times. Let the kid stay over the rainbow. It's what she wanted, right?
I like the upsets. They define the tournament. Upsets prove there are lots of very good players who don't need a conference affiliation to validate their skills. Butler's Shelvin Mack could play anywhere.
I prefer the meritocracy of a tournament to the monopoly of a bowl system. I'm glad VCU and Butler have done well. Ditto Richmond and Morehead State. I just don't want to see any of them in the Final Four.
It's a great story, sure, though with Butler and VCU playing each other Saturday, it's great by half. Maybe they can each wear one slipper. But do we want high drama? Or high-level basketball?
I'd rather watch the matchup of the inside muscle of Kansas' twins Markieff and Marcus Morris -- the Morrii -- against the outside élan of Pitt's Ashton Gibbs, Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown. I'd prefer seeing if Ohio State could fulfill its destiny as this year's one outstanding team, by taking it to Duke and then Kansas.
The first weekend is all about sizzle. The regionals turn up the heat. The Final Four should be smoking with prime talent. Jared Sullinger vs. the Morrii, filling the plate on Monday night. Instead, we get the chance at another fairy tale. Don't forget your pixie dust.
This is not to disrespect the dreamers. What VCU did to Kansas was good enough to hang on a wall. Smart is a man who attended the same college as Paul Newman. He could have gone to Harvard, Yale or Brown. He chose Kenyon College in the middle of cornfield Ohio, graduating magna cum laude, playing Division III basketball and holding the school record for most career assists.
He has a history degree and a flair for the dramatic. He collects quotes. "My biggest hobby,'' he called it.
On March 1, he gathered his team for its first practice after its regular season ended with five losses in eight games. Smart then violated Section 308.3 of the State of Virginia Fire Prevention Code -- "a person shall not use an open flame in connection with a public meeting for purposes of education (and) recreation'' -- by tearing the month of February from his desk calendar and setting it on fire.
On March 25, the day its most famous hoops alumnus was beating Florida State in the Southwest Region semifinals, Kenyon College was "magically transformed'' in the words of a press release, by its third annual Harry Potter Day.
And yet ...
Smart's own players were so unconvinced of their tournament worthiness, they didn't even gather for the Selection Show. Smart watched it in his office, without any of his seniors, because he didn't want a non-invite to be their last college basketball memory.
Smart and his players have carried the no-respect boulder on their shoulder for five astounding games. Yet, even the Rams players didn't believe they were worthy of hoisting it.
Butler and Brad Stevens are no longer a nice, little story. They are big time. The Bulldogs play with the sort of controlled fearlessness late March demands. On Saturday, freshman Chrishawn Hopkins, who played in 18 games all year -- and seven minutes in the last 10 weeks -- came in midway through the second half to contribute a seeing-eye assist and a three-pointer, just when it looked as if Florida's inside muscle might ruin Butler's dream sequel.
It's all great TV. It's the sort of heady alchemy of adrenaline and overachievement that only this event can produce, game after game, for three weeks.
I just wish it would have stopped a few days earlier.
Butler-VCU is like a World Series between the Padres and the Orioles. It might go seven games and it might be exciting. But it's still the Padres and the Orioles. Jared Sullinger, we hardly knew ye.
The casual fan drawn to the drama will enjoy the coming weekend more than the connoisseur who prefers his basketball straight up. Props to Butler and VCU. Their stories belong in books. But this is basketball we're producing. Not literature.