HOUSTON - The VCU players sat at home last year, watched Butler almost win the national championship and thought, sure, that could be us someday. Sort of the same way people dream about winning the lottery.
Well, the numbers came up for the Rams this year. Same thing for Kentucky, Connecticut and Butler again, too, in a way the NCAA tournament has never seen before.
The teams arrived at the Final Four on Thursday, all after a season of playing the underdog at one point or another a season that produced a final weekend hardly anyone saw coming.
"Crisis mode," Wildcats coach John Calipari said in describing Kentucky's status after a loss to Arkansas dropped his team to 19-8, pedestrian by standards in the Bluegrass State.
"Our next games were home against Florida, home against Vanderbilt and at Tennessee. Shoot, we lose those and maybe we're not in the tournament."
They weren't the only ones with that empty feeling at some point in 2010-11.
Connecticut was picked 10th in the Big East.
VCU was listed as a preseason 5,000-1 longshot.
Butler was 14-9 and riding a three-game losing streak in early February.
"I never thought we'd be sitting here," Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens said when asked what he thought of his team's prospects at that point. "But the season starts in October and it goes until at least March 1. You're supposed to get better. It's hard. But if you have guys willing to work through it, it can happen."
A look at Saturday's Final Four games
BUTLER (27-9) vs. VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH (28-11)
BUTLER'S ROAD TO THE FINAL FOUR
No. 8 Butler beat No. 9 Old Dominion 60-58; No. 1 Pittsburgh 71-70; No. 4 Wisconsin 61-54; No. 2 Florida 74-71, OT.
It's a very close call between Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack as to who is most important, but Howard gets it in a photo finish. The 6-foot-8 senior forward averaged 16.7 points and 7.7 rebounds this season, shooting 48.9 percent from the field and 42.6 percent from 3-point range. He got the Bulldogs' run to a second Final Four started with a tip-in at the buzzer to beat Old Dominion. He made the winning free throw with less than a second to play in the victory over Pittsburgh, and he had 20 points and 16 rebounds in the win over Wisconsin.
Brad Stevens is a Final Four veteran at the age of 34. He has taken the Bulldogs to consecutive Final Four appearances and what might be the biggest surprise is that he was around to do it. Many thought he would leave Butler for the riches of one of the power conferences after last season's run, but he and his calm demeanor are back. He is already nine wins ahead of the previous record for best four-year start by a coach with a 116-24 mark.
The Bulldogs don't just have experience they have Final Four experience. Four key players are back from the team that lost to Duke in last year's national championship game. Three of their four wins have been by three points or less, and they went overtime to beat Florida in the regional final. Despite not having a lot of size, Butler stays even on the boards, and the Bulldogs are coming in on a 13-game winning streak.
VCU'Ss ROAD TO THE FINAL FOUR
No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth beat No. 11 Southern California 59-46; No. 6 Georgetown 74-56; No. 3 Purdue 94-76; No. 10 Florida State 72-71, OT; No. 1 Kansas 71-61.
Joey Rodriguez is a true college point guard, and his numbers in the NCAA tournament bear that out. The 5-foot-10 Rodriguez is averaging 10.1 points in the tournament, but his impressive numbers are 38 assists and 10 turnovers in that span. In the Rams' win over Purdue, he had 12 points, 11 assists and no turnovers. He is comfortable directing the offense in the halfcourt, but he also does a good job of getting the ball to the right man on the break.
Shaka Smart burst onto the national scene with the Rams' Final Four run. In his second season as a head coach, the 33-year-old Smart already has become a candidate for every Division I opening, and his season isn't even over yet. He has solid credentials as an assistant having worked under Billy Donovan at Florida and Oliver Purnell at Clemson. He won 27 games in his first season, and the Rams won the CBI.
The Rams came into the tournament with a chip on their shoulder after so many said they didn't deserve to be in the field, even one expanded by three teams. VCU has already won five games, something that would get a team to the title game in past years. What's been most impressive is that only one win has been by less than 10 points, and that was an overtime win over Florida State.
Butler has been here before. VCU has done something no team has ever done before, going from the First Four to the Final Four. Both are carrying the banner for mid-major schools, and one will get to play for the national championship. Butler doesn't mind an up-tempo game; that's exactly what the Rams want, using their "Wreaking Havoc" style to force turnovers and create opportunities in the open court.
KENTUCKY (29-8) vs. CONNECTICUT (30-9)
KENTUCKY'S ROAD TO THE FINAL FOUR
No. 4 Kentucky beat No. 13 Princeton 59-57; No. 5 West Virginia 71-63; No. 1 Ohio State 62-60; No. 2 North Carolina 76-69.
Freshman Brandon Knight had two game-winners in the NCAA tournament, making a tough drive against Princeton with 2 seconds left and hitting a jumper with 5.4 seconds left to beat overall No. 1 seed Ohio State. He struggled from the field in both games before hitting the big shots. He had 30 points against West Virginia and 22 against North Carolina. The 6-foot-3 guard doesn't have a great assist-to-turnover ratio (17-14 in the tournament), but he can score. His 14 games of 20 points-plus is a Kentucky freshman record.
This is John Calipari's third Final Four, and each has been with a different school, matching Rick Pitino's record. Calipari's runs with Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 both were vacated for violation of NCAA rules within the program. Calipari is one of the better coaches in terms of making in-game adjustments, especially on the defensive end as he did in the win over Ohio State.
Kentucky is young with three freshmen in the rotation, but it's the upperclassmen who have come up big in the tournament. Center Josh Harrellson is averaging 14.8 points and 9.0 rebounds in the tournament, while swingman Deandre Liggins has been a defensive stopper covering both guards and forwards.
CONNECTICUT'S ROAD TO THE FINAL FOUR
No. 3 Connecticut beat No. 14 Bucknell 81-52; No. 6 Cincinnati 69-58; No. 2 San Diego State 74-67; No. 5 Arizona 65-63.
This might be the easiest call in all of college basketball. Kemba Walker had a great regular season, and the 6-foot-1 junior has been even better in the postseason. He led the Huskies to five wins in as many days to win the Big East tournament, averaging 26.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists. With talk of him being exhausted from his big week in New York, Walker went and averaged 26.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.8 assists in the four NCAA tournament games. He has been a leader of the young team and is the only upperclassman in the Huskies' starting lineup.
Jim Calhoun is looking for his third national championship in his fourth Final Four appearance. The 68-year-old Hall of Famer has a career record of 853-607 placing him sixth on the all-time wins list and third among active coaches behind Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim. The Huskies' Big East championship was Calhoun's record seventh. He has been suspended for three games next season over NCAA violations in his program.
The Huskies are going wherever Kemba Walker takes them. The rest of the team has really picked it up since the postseason started. Freshman Jeremy Lamb is averaging 16.0 points, and sophomore Alex Oriahki is pulling down 9.8 rebounds per game. Connecticut's wins in the regional semifinals and finals were road games at a neutral site as San Diego State and Arizona had the crowd on its side in Anaheim, Calif.
These teams met in November in the championship game of the Maui Invitational. The unranked Huskies, led by Walker's 29 points, prevailed 84-67 over No. 8 Kentucky, taking a 50-29 lead at halftime and holding the Wildcats to 36.7 percent shooting overall. The teams have changed quite a bit since then mostly because the three freshmen who play key roles for both teams have played a full season.