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March 28, 2011
A Bunch of Ram Fools
VCU's Triumph

by John Gasaway

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Meet your 2011 Final Four: Butler, Connecticut, VCU, and Kentucky. All four were more (Butler and VCU) or less (Connecticut and Kentucky) written off in February. All four are going to Houston. As T.E. Lawrence said (or maybe as Peter O'Toole said he said), nothing is written.

SOUTHWEST

(11) Virginia Commonwealth 71, (1) Kansas 61 [69 possessions]
Forget the parallels to George Mason in 2006. Yes, VCU is a CAA team. Yes, they're an 11-seed that received an at-large bid, an invitation that was immediately criticized on national TV. Yes, in the early game on Elite Eight Sunday the Rams toppled a heavily favored No. 1 seed. But ponder the new wrinkles that Shaka Smart's team has added to this cherished March tale. That George Mason team in 2006 was outstanding during the regular season (15-3 in-conference). VCU this year was anything but, losing five of their last seven CAA games. Five years ago the Patriots needed 45 minutes to put away their scrappy No. 1 seed (UConn), in a game that could have gone either way. Yesterday the Rams brushed Kansas aside with relative ease, in a game where the Jayhawks drew no closer than five down over the last ten minutes.

VCU has written a new tale, and it's a good one. After KU jumped out to a 6-0 lead and the Rams responded with their "Oh no you don't" 20-4 run, the game had 30 minutes to go -- but raise your hand if you already had the sense that, at a minimum, Smart's team was in this game for good. Any chance that the Jayhawks would simply blow through their second consecutive Richmond, Virginia-based opponent was dispelled early. This was going to be a game. Jamie Skeen had an ugly stat line against the Morris twins (6-of-17 from the field) but he got to the line 12 times and notched a 26-10 double-double. More tellingly, Skeen was just 2-of-10 inside the arc, but 4-of-7 outside it. (Brandon Rozzell was also 4-of-7 from the perimeter.) That disparity in personal outcomes pretty much sums up how this team has won five NCAA tournament games to date. VCU has been ugly inside but transcendently beautiful from outside.

In advance of this game there would have been no reason to think that what during the regular season was the CAA's sixth-rated defense would be able to hold one of the nation's best offenses to 61 points in 69 possessions. But it happened. The Rams played a wonderful game, but when it came to making KU look bad KU was a great help. The Jayhawks were 15-of-28 at the line, and 2-of-21 from outside the arc. When a Bill Self team loses to a mid-major in March, as has been known to happen, the coach suddenly becomes a lot less smart in the always sagacious "let's take the long view" eyes of Twitter. Hey, this is the business Self has chosen. If he wants Twitter's esteem he should have remembered to jot down one last bullet point on the pregame whiteboard in the locker room: "Don't shoot 54 percent at the line and 9.5 percent on threes."

EAST

(4) Kentucky 76, (2) North Carolina 69 [70]
Even with North Carolina's John Henson in foul trouble for much of the game, the Wildcats couldn't get much going in the paint, connecting on just 15 of 34 two-point attempts. But Brandon Knight hit 5 of 11 threes, and he was below average on a day when UK was draining 12 of 22 shots from beyond the arc. The 12th was the biggest one. Carolina had come back from 11 down and with 37 seconds remaining trailed 70-69. That's when DeAndre Liggins hit a three that would have been a two if he hadn't clipped his toenails that morning. Kentucky picked a nice time to record their best shooting of the entire postseason, SEC tournament included.

In a tournament that's setting new standards for unpredictability this regional final represented the last semblance of order. With the obvious exception of Kemba Walker, it's probable that the other three regions are sending no players to Houston that will be selected in the first round of this summer's NBA draft. But whether it was Kentucky or North Carolina who prevailed in this game, general managers at the next level could rest assured that multiple first-rounders would be available for inspection courtesy of the East region's representative. Carolina could well lose three players to the 2011 draft, all with eligibility remaining: Harrison Barnes, Henson, and Tyler Zeller. And by the time late March rolled around this collection of talent was, at last, playing to its potential. This month Zeller made 57 percent of his twos and Barnes connected on 40 percent of his threes. For a team whose defense was far better than its offense during the regular season, the late emergence of a fairly lethal Zeller-Barnes combination -- an emergence aided and abetted by Kendall Marshall -- seemed to portend good things to come. The Heels got to a point where I could very easily envision them winning the national championship -- in other words they'd come a very long way since December. But yesterday Kentucky was even better.

The best game that any offense has had against UK's postseason D belongs to Princeton, which racked up 57 points in 54 possessions. Know what? That's not very good. All teams that reach the Final Four give the appearance of getting better the longer they play, of course, but in Kentucky's case the appearance may be grounded in those pushy little weenies called facts. In SEC play the Cats were unusually normal for a John Calipari defense, but if prolonged exposure to the coach has been enough for this young group to more closely approximate precedents set on that side of the ball by outfits like Kentucky 2010 and Memphis 2008, the implications are pretty weighty. We saw yesterday what this group can do from beyond the arc on offense. Standard-issue Calipari D and athletes, only this time with actual perimeter shooting? If that is indeed what we have here, Connecticut better come to Houston ready to play.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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