The case for (and against) each Final Four team in Houston
No school in recent memory has outperformed its regular season quite like VCU
Don't you just get the feeling Butler has used up all its lives this March?
Kentucky is the most talented team in Houston, but UConn has Kemba Walker
If there was ever a perilous time to be a professional prognosticator, this is it. In case you haven't noticed, we so-called experts have been turned on our heads during this unforgettable NCAA tournament. You might say we've been Shaka'd. That might not be great for us, but it sure is great for the sport. All season long the rule in college hoops has been to expect the unexpected. So nobody should be surprised that our picks have been so wrong so often. Of course, we like it when our picks turn out to be correct, but isn't being wrong half the fun? (That's called rationalizing. I've gotten good at it.)
The jig is up. We "experts" are guessing, just like you. We can break down these matchups for hours on end, but they always come down to the simple things -- who is making shots, who is staying healthy and out of foul trouble, who is getting the lucky bounces. If you assess all four teams that have alighted in Houston, you can make a case both for and against each one to be the team that will hoist the big trophy on Monday night. What follows below are my reasons to pick -- and not pick -- each of the Final Four teams. Don't worry, I'm not straddling the fence the whole way. I've made my official picks at the conclusion of the column. Fortunately, this tournament only has three games left, so I only have three more opportunities to be wrong.
Reason to pick them: They're the hottest team left. No school in recent memory has outperformed its regular season quite like these Rams. This is especially true with regard to their three-point shooting. During the season, VCU was ranked seventh in the CAA in three-point shooting at 35.7 percent. During the NCAA tournament they have made nearly 44 percent. Their top three leading scorers in the tournament are making a combined 52 percent from behind the arc. Senior forward Jamie Skeen made 25 three-pointers all season, but he drilled four against Kansas.
VCU has likewise overachieved at the defensive end. During the season they allowed opponents to shoot 43.6 percent, which ranked eighth in the conference. During the tournament they're holding opponents to 39 percent from the field and 23 percent from three. This is clearly a team that has found its identity on both ends of the floor.
Reason not to pick them: They can't possibly keep this up. True, it didn't seem possible that VCU could make it this far, but at some point the Rams have to float back to Earth, right? They've had another week of hype to deal with, and they're coming to Houston with distractions they've never encountered before. They're also going to experience playing in the middle of a football stadium for the first time, with its cavernous atmosphere and strange sight lines. It's a lot harder to make half your three-pointers under those circumstances. It's also hard not to think about George Mason's storied run to the 2006 Final Four, which ended with a drubbing at the hands of eventual champion Florida. That history could very well repeat itself Saturday.
Reason to pick them: They've been there, done that. Imagine being a No. 8 seed from the Horizon League and making it to the Final Four ... and having to play the part of Goliath when you get there. But if you're a believer in the benefits of Final Four experience (which I am), then you take note that Butler is the only team full of players who have actually competed in a Final Four. (Kemba Walker is the only player on UConn who participated in the Final Four two years ago.)
But didn't Butler play well in the Final Four last year without having been there, done that? Yes, but that's largely because the things that Butler does best (namely defend and control pace) translates much easier to a football-stadium environment than three-point shooting. Plus, the players got to sleep in their own beds and play in front of their home crowd last year. That had to help them relax.
Reason not to pick them: Their luck is bound to run out. The Bulldogs' march to this year's Final Four is even more unexpected than last year's. In 2010, Butler was a 5 seed whose only really close call before the Final Four came in the second round against 13th-seeded Murray State. They beat Syracuse in the Sweet 16 by four points and Kansas State in the regional final by seven. This year Butler had to survive three crazy endings just to make it to Houston: Matt Howard's buzzer beater against Old Dominion, the wild foul fest at the end of the Pittsburgh game and an overtime win over Florida that required the Gators to miss several opportunities at game-winning three-pointers. Don't you just get the feeling Butler has used up all its lives?
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