TOP SEEDS TUMBLED DURING A WILD WEEKEND THAT RESULTED IN THE HIGHEST COMBINATION OF FINAL FOUR SEEDS IN TOURNAMENT HISTORY
The Virginia Commonwealth players had gone to their rooms in a San Antonio hotel last Saturday night, and only the coaches and team managers remained in a conference room. The Rams had already written the NCAA tournament's most unlikely story, emerging from the backwater of a polarizing invitation and a play-in game to pull off four straight upsets and advance to the Elite Eight. In less than 24 hours they would play mighty Kansas, the last remaining No. 1 seed, for a place in the Final Four. Assistant coach Mike Rhoades produced two fresh basketball nets, pristine and white. He laid them on a table and cut them into small pieces, then walked out into the hotel and looped a strand of the net over each of the players' door handles. They would awaken to find the most powerful symbol in postseason basketball awaiting them, like presents on Christmas morning.
Four teams remain, yet none belong. VCU lost five of its last eight regular-season games, a slide that started with a hideous 91--80 road loss to a lousy Northeastern team. Butler was 14--9 in early February, and besides, everybody knows the Bulldogs' contract with the devil was a one-year deal that expired when Gordon Hayward left for the NBA last spring. Connecticut finished ninth in the Big East. Ninth. Kentucky was supposed to ride John Wall's afterburners to the national title a season ago, but the Wildcats didn't, and most of that team is in the NBA now, having left coach John Calipari to start anew in the bluegrass (just the way he likes it).
Yet these four teams are alive, and on Saturday at a giant football stadium in Houston they will contest a Final Four like no other. Over the last 25 seasons the average seed of a Final Four team is 2.5. The average this year is a staggering 6.5, the highest ever. Which either validates the widespread theory that college basketball in 2010--11 lacked a superteam or signifies the dawn of a new era, when the one-and-done culture shoves all good teams to the middle and the hottest one come springtime wins it all.
But that is a question for the months and years ahead. For now it brings the sport to the stunning reality that Virginia Commonwealth (a No. 11 seed with a 28--11 record) will play Butler (No. 8, 27--9) in the first of two national semifinals, guaranteeing the tournament a second straight so-called mid-major in the title game, on April 4. The sheer joy attached to that statement was best understood late on Sunday afternoon in the back of a locker room at the Alamodome, where Shaka Smart, 33, VCU's ascendant second-year coach, stood next to a locker with his blue dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, tie gone, eating a banana.
His Rams had not just beaten Kansas 71--61 that afternoon; they had taken the Jayhawks apart (much as they had scorched Big Ten power Purdue the previous weekend), attacking a team that likes to play fast by playing faster. They led by as many as 18 points in the first half and left the locker room for the second chanting, "One, two, three, kill!" In the tunnel entering the arena, they screamed, "We're going to whip their ass. One, two, three, Houston! Step on the gas, baby! We got it!" And 20 minutes later the Jayhawks' season was over.
Now Smart stood, cordoned off from the biggest part of the locker room by a screen on which he had shown pregame highlights of commentators disparaging the team's chances of winning, and was asked the simplest of questions: "Is this easily the best day of your life?"
"Best day of my life?" said Smart. "No." He smiled devilishly, a man with the world by the throat, at least for an instant. "These guys don't even know this," he said, looking around the small space at his assistants. "Best day of my life was a couple of months ago. I found out my wife is pregnant."
With that, the back room exploded in a hail of congratulatory shouts. Way to go, big fella! Come over here, man! Big guy's getting it done! Maya Smart, a Harvard graduate with a journalism degree from Northwestern, who works as a coach for freelance writers and married Shaka in 2006, is expecting the couple's first child in September. "He was the one who wanted to keep it a secret," Maya told SI. "I was like, I think people can tell." In any case, people can surely tell this: Smart and his Rams are on an ungodly roll.
That roll started in Madison, Wis., where Smart was raised, and it continued at Division III Kenyon (Ohio) College, where he set the school assist record (after turning his back on acceptances to Harvard, Yale and Brown so he could play). His first job in coaching was at California University of Pennsylvania, and his fifth stop, in 2008--09, was on Billy Donovan's staff at Florida. That's where VCU athletic director Norwood Teague found him. Teague was looking for a coach to replace Anthony Grant, who had left for Alabama after going 76--25 in three years.
Teague and Smart met for a 6 a.m. breakfast at the 43rd Street Deli and Breakfast House in Gainesville. They were the first people in the shop; Smart brought one document—his 31-page treatise on recruiting, which he wrote to explain his philosophy on the subject—and a roomful of optimism. "He stood out so much, I almost stopped the interview midway and said, 'Go back, get Maya, let's go,'" Teague said after Sunday's win. "He's one of the most upbeat, positive human beings I've ever met. He's the real deal."
Like most new coaches, Smart would build his VCU team with pieces left behind by his predecessor. Part of that was good: Grant's Rams had gone 24--10 and reached the 2009 tournament. Part of that was problematic: These were Grant's players. "It took a while," says 5'10" senior point guard Joey Rodriguez about adjusting to Smart's style. "Probably the whole [first] year. It was a battle." (Rodriguez left VCU when Grant did, intending to transfer, but changed his mind.)
No player has been more vital than 6'9" senior forward Jamie Skeen, who made three three-pointers in the first half against the Jayhawks and finished with a game-high 26 points to go with 10 rebounds. Last season Skeen, who transferred from Wake Forest in December 2008, averaged just a tick over 20 minutes backing up Larry Sanders, who would be the 15th pick in the NBA draft. "He and I were at odds because he wanted to play a lot more than he played," says Smart. "When Larry moved on, Skeen was by far the biggest beneficiary. His work ethic was terrific."
Not just his work ethic but his toughman attitude as well. As Skeen sat at his locker postgame after the Kansas win, his celebration was muted. "We still got two games left," he said. "I'm not satisfied."
The Rams have traveled far from the night of March 13, when they declined to watch the NCAA selection show as a team because their poor finish had left them expecting nothing. Just 14 days later Smart pulled his Blackberry from its leather holster and saw that there were 200 texts awaiting him. The device had a background image of the team celebrating its win over Purdue in Chicago. "So," says Smart, the man of the moment. "I may need a new picture."
If Smart knows about putting pieces together, senior forward Matt Howard understands even better what can happen when they're assembled. On a very cold, windy afternoon in February he barged through the doors of Hinkle Fieldhouse on the Butler campus and pulled a threadbare winter hat off his head. He was there to talk about last year, when Butler's marvelous run to a national championship ended two points short against Duke. And while he remembered the crushing pain that comes with such a near victory, he also remembered sitting in a locker room at Indianapolis's Lucas Oil Stadium after the loss and listening as seniors Avery Jukes, Nick Rodgers and Willie Veasley addressed the team, per Bulldogs tradition. "They talked about how great it was to win all those games," said Howard. "And the best part was coming together as a team."
Those three seniors had finished their eligibility and departed, along with Hayward, a sophomore forward who was the ninth pick in the NBA draft. It was an enormous departure that could have returned the program to mediocrity. But under Brad Stevens—at 34, remarkably just the second-youngest coach in this year's Final Four and, like Smart, a Division III player, from DePauw University—Butler has again come together. Last Saturday the Bulldogs rallied from an 11-point deficit in the second half to beat No. 2 seed Florida 74--71 in overtime. The Bulldogs haven't lost since Feb. 3, a 13-game streak that includes last-second tournament wins over Old Dominion and Pittsburgh and a 61--54 victory over Wisconsin in the Sweet 16.
The restart centers on Howard, the unorthodox, 6'8" 230-pounder whom junior guard Ronald Nored calls "Mr. Everything," for his varied skills, high motor and leadership. The eighth of 10 children, Howard was an all-state player at Connersville (Ind.) High. He shifted inside to the five spot to make room for Hayward but this year landed back on the perimeter while Stevens reshuffled the rotation and installed Andrew Smith, a 6'11" sophomore, at center.
In his new role Howard has flourished—and not just by hitting the game-winning shot against ODU and the decisive free throw against Pitt. He has also averaged 16.7 points and 7.7 rebounds while connecting on 42.6% of his 122 three-point tries. A year ago he averaged 11.6 and 5.2 rebounds and, most telling, attempted only 11 threes all year. Yet his fundamental energy remains intact. "Every time I run over to a pile, I'm helping him up," says Smith. As a junior, Howard wore a mouth guard for the games he guessed would be most violent; now he wears it all the time.
Stevens has surrounded Howard and Smith with familiar faces and new ones. Familiar: junior guard Shelvin Mack, a stocky, streaky combo guard who erupted for 30 points against Pitt and 27 against Florida. Also familiar: Nored, a tireless on-ball defender who will take on Rodriguez in the semifinals, and senior guard Shawn Vanzant, who has nearly doubled the 14.6 minutes per game he played as a junior. New: Khyle Marshall, a 6'7" freshman forward who came off the bench with a vital 10 points and seven rebounds (all offensive) against the Gators.
For all of them, another Final Four is a rare second chance. "We expect to go back," said Nored in February, before the Bulldogs had earned a place in the tournament. "That's the tradition at Butler."
It is the tradition at Connecticut too. Jim Calhoun, who at 68 is a year older than Smart and Stevens combined, won national titles in 1999 and 2004, both times emerging from a western region. Again this year the Huskies (30--9) were sent west, where they beat No. 2 San Diego State and No. 5 Arizona, which had blown out defending champion Duke two days earlier. The win over the Wildcats was the third-seeded Huskies' ninth straight in 19 days, starting with five victories in five days to take the Big East Tournament.
While Butler had to adjust to losing its best player, 6'1" junior point guard Kemba Walker blossomed into a star, and Calhoun has surrounded him with role players. "Kemba is expected to score 25," says assistant coach Kevin Ollie, a 13-year NBA veteran who returned to Storrs last summer. "It's his teammates' job to get him opportunities to succeed."
Says Calhoun, "I think there is a very thin line, especially with young kids, to label them as, You're just this. Because they all think they're really good. And a lot of them think they're Kemba and they're not."
The closest is 6'5" freshman Jeremy Lamb, whose father, Rolando, scored the winning basket for VCU to knock Calhoun's Northeastern team out in the first round of the 1984 NCAAs. Since the start of the Big East tournament, Lamb has poured in 16.0 points per game (4.9 above his average), hit 55.6% of his threes (up from 37.2%) and given Connecticut a second option after the transcendent Walker.
Lamb scarcely speaks when he's among his fellow players. "I'm a calm dude," he says. Classmate Shabazz Napier, a 6-foot guard, makes up for Lamb's chill. "Before every game he says the other team is a meal, like food on our plate," says freshman forward Tyler Olander. "And he says we've got to stab them with our forks and eat them up. Crazy stuff like that."
Senior guard Donnell Beverly averages just 8.8 minutes, and he has played just 13 in the tournament. Beverly had surgery on both hips last spring to relieve chronic pain; it's unlikely his game will ever return to an elite level. "But he and Kemba decided that last year's team had two seniors who were great players, Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson, and neither one of them wanted to be a leader," says assistant coach George Blaney. "Kemba and Donnell decided right after last season that that wasn't going to happen with this team."
Calipari starts with fresh pieces every season. It was a year ago that he stood in a cold hallway of the Carrier Dome in Syracuse before an Elite Eight game against West Virginia and talked about the new paradigm in his sport. His first Kentucky team started three freshmen, and all of them (Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe) plus one reserve freshman (Daniel Orton) would leave Lexington after one season as first-round draft choices. "Can you imagine if I had this team for three years?" Calipari said that morning. "Can you imagine? But the times, they are a-changin'. I'm just gonna have to keep recruiting. Figure out how many guys we're gonna lose, and replace them."
The next day the Wildcats bricked 28 of 32 threes against West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone and went home. Sure enough Coach Cal's 2010--11 season tipped off with more freshman stars: point guard Brandon Knight, 6'8" forward Terrence Jones and guard Doron Lamb. It is a terrific class, if not the Fab Five--esque collection of a year ago. Knight has been vital in the tournament, beating Princeton with an isolation drive in the first game and then, much more significantly, closing out the Wildcats' 62--60 Sweet 16 takedown of No. 1 overall seed and tourney favorite Ohio State on an 18-foot jumper with 5.4 seconds to play.
But Calipari has needed more. He has needed contributions from players who were in the program before he began importing future No. 1 picks. Like DeAndre Liggins, a wiry, 6'6" junior who emerged from a tough upbringing in Chicago. "Could easily be a kid out on the street," says Calipari. Liggins averaged 16.5 minutes as a freshman before Wall & Co. arrived. That number dipped to 15.3 last season. "I was usually on the white team," said Liggins, describing Kentucky's second-string practice unit. But his playing time has doubled this year. It was the scrappy Liggins who harassed Ohio State freshman point guard Aaron Craft in the Sweet 16. And it was Liggins who blocked a shot by North Carolina freshman Kendall Marshall before drilling a trey to give Kentucky a four-point lead en route to a 76--69 win on Sunday in Newark and a spot in the Final Four.
Even more unlikely has been the work of 6'10", 275-pound senior post man Josh Harrellson, who played a total of 403 minutes in his first two years (after a year at Southwestern Illinois junior college) and was previously most famous for the denim shorts he likes to wear (hence his nickname, Jorts). Had Turkish center Enes Kanter not been declared ineligible by the NCAA, Harrellson might never have been needed. And he might not have been available. After Kentucky's blue-white scrimmage last October, Harrellson was frustrated that Calipari wasn't complimenting him and tweeted, in part, "Just amazing to me I can't get a good job or way to go."
Calipari promptly kicked Harrellson off Twitter. "My first thought is I should just throw him off the team," says Calipari. Instead he forced Harrellson to do 30 minutes of vigorous running before practice every day for a month. Harrellson did that, and then kept showing up early. He still does. "It changed him," says Calipari. "Changed his body, changed his habits. It was forced on him, but he became a totally different player."
Harrellson has averaged 14.8 points and 9.0 rebounds in four tournament games. He was a viable big body on Ohio State's prodigious freshman center Jared Sullinger in the Sweet 16 upset. And better yet, when that game was finished, he rolled into the Kentucky locker room rapping the famous, and fitting, first line of Juicy, by Notorious B.I.G.: It was all a dream!
Four teams remain. Four teams still dream.
EITHER THERE WAS NO SUPERTEAM THIS SEASON OR THE ONE-AND-DONE CULTURE SHOVES ALL GOOD TEAMS IN THE MIDDLE.
BEFORE THE SECOND HALF AGAINST THE JAYHAWKS, THE VCU PLAYERS SCREAMED, "WE'RE GOING TO WHIP THEIR ASS! STEP ON THE GAS, BABY! WE GOT IT!"
"KEMBA IS EXPECTED TO SCORE 25," SAYS UCONN'S OLLIE. "IT'S HIS TEAMMATES' JOB TO GET HIM OPPORTUNITIES TO SUCCEED."
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SCOUTS' TAKE: BUTLER VS. VCU
In the so-called mid-major semifinal, one team's lockdown defense will be constantly assaulted by the other's run-and-gun attack
HOW TO BEAT BUTLER
WHEN THE BULLDOGS HAVE THE BALL
They play at a fast pace, so try to keep them off-balance by mixing up zone and man defenses. You want to pressure their guards and make them work to get up the floor. You have to slow down Shelvin Mack, who's a terrific player, and limit his looks from the three-point line. Butler plays a very physical brand of basketball, and the Bulldogs rely on toughness and hustle plays. You have to work hard at beating them to loose-ball rebounds, which can kill you. They seem to get all the ones that bounce 12, 14, 17 feet away.
ATTACKING THE BULLDOGS' DEFENSE
They don't trap in the post, so you want to put the ball on the blocks and attack them inside. You should also put them in pick-and-rolls as much as possible and hope one of their defenders arrives late. But the reality is that they're really solid on defense—that's their strength—and it's tough to score on them no matter who you are. Your bigger concern should be keeping them from scoring.
Confidence. They believe. They've been there before. And they play as hard as anyone in the country—consistently. I don't think they ever have a player in the game that you could say, He doesn't play as hard as he possibly can.
HOW TO BEAT VCU
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Without question, you have to get back to set your defense. Point guard Joey Rodriguez is a blur with the ball; he just flies up the court. You have to get out and guard him. Jamie Skeen and Juvonte Reddic run right to the rim looking to score. They're also not afraid of taking quick threes—and they can make them. In the half-court, VCU will ball-screen you to death, and you have to be prepared to guard the pop-out man. Bradford Burgess starts at the four, but he's really dangerous at setting the screen and popping out to shoot the three. Skeen can do that as well.
ATTACKING THE RAMS' DEFENSE
You have to be aggressive against their full-court pressure because you can get scoring opportunities on the fast break. Against their man-to-man, go right at them with the dribble. If you attack the rim, you can get by them. That's the main thing.
Stopping their three-point shooters. The Rams have some lineups where all five guys can shoot from out there. As they've shown in this tournament, their offense is high octane when they're hitting from outside. You have to shut them down.
SCOUTS' TAKE: UCONN VS. KENTUCKY
A matchup of two storied programs (nine titles combined) and several future NBA first-round picks will produce plenty of points
HOW TO BEAT CONNECTICUT
WHEN THE HUSKIES HAVE THE BALL
They like to play fast and they want to play in transition. Use a full-court zone press to slow them down and keep them from pushing the ball down your throat. They don't attack the zone well, so by the time they get into their offense there will be about 22 seconds on the shot clock, which cuts down their dribble penetration.
ATTACKING THE HUSKIES' DEFENSE
Shabazz Napier is the best on-the-ball defender of the tournament, if not the country. He takes you out of your offense. You have to screen him to relieve the pressure he puts on the ball. The other thing is, you need to get their big guys away from the rim as much as possible. Alex Oriakhi is not necessarily a shot blocker, but he's a great defensive rebounder—and that helps start their break. He and Charles Okwandu are very aggressive with their hands around the rim, so you should set a lot of baseline screens on the block for shooters to curl into the lane that way.
Obviously, Kemba Walker is the difference-maker. Keep him out of the lane and off the free throw line. The other guys are good players, but you have to make them shoot—and hope they miss. Use the zone and make them into a jump-shooting team.
HOW TO BEAT KENTUCKY
WHEN THE WILDCATS HAVE THE BALL
Their offense is personnel-based: They've got a handful of plays, and they're pretty simple. Freshman point guard Brandon Knight is the key. You can't let him get open looks. You need to take away his jumper, his three-point attempts, and force him left. They've struggled offensively when he struggles. They also like to drive the ball in the middle. DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller and Terrence Jones—they want to get in the lane. You have to keep them from driving and keep Josh Harrellson off the boards.
ATTACKING THE WILDCATS' DEFENSE
Their defense is underrated. They have so much length and they're so athletic that they can really make up for mistakes and contest shots. They also like closing up the driving lanes. Harrellson is a really good post defender because he's so physical. You need ball movement and good screening, because they don't switch on ball screens very often. That's the best way to get clean looks.
Miller. He can play the three or the four. He was the MVP of the SEC tournament. He can get you 20 points [though he has averaged only 7.0 over the last three games]. He's been shooting it great from three. And he can get key offensive rebounds and buckets in the lane.
Photograph by GREG NELSON
NO. 1 IS DONE Skeen and the 11th-seeded Rams laid out Markieff Morris and Kansas, the last remaining top seed.
HOWARD'S END By hitting two game-winning shots—as well as making all the little plays—the collision-inclined Howard (54) has succeeded in extending his last season to the final weekend.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
YES, UCONN! The Huskies erupted after beating Arizona, a victory that sent the Big East's ninth-place team to Houston and extended its winning streak to nine over 19 days.
TIME ON HIS SIDE Though Kentucky's latest crop of talented freshmen drew most of the attention, it was Liggins (34), a junior, who made the key plays down the stretch in the victory over Marshall and the Tar Heels.
BOB ROSATO (MACK)
SHELVIN MACK The combo guard is a threat on the break and beyond the arc.
GREG NELSON (RODRIGUEZ)
JOEY RODRIGUEZ The 5'10" playmaker is constantly pushing the pace.
KEMBA WALKER The tourney's hottest player has averaged 26.8 points.
BRANDON KNIGHT The freshman has already hit a pair of game-winning shots.