It was just three years ago when all four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four for the first and, as of yet, only time. And then of course at the other extreme we have 2011: the least chalky Final Four of the modern era. I know there have been a lot of pieces written this week about how a national semifinal being contested between a No. 11 seed and an 8 presages a new era of weirdly competitive hoops, but color me skeptical. Both extremes of the chalk/no-chalk spectrum happening within 36 months of each other makes me suspicious of any Grand Sweeping Narrative just yet. Then again no one really knows, which is cool. Let's keep an eye on this.
2011 Final Four
All games played at Reliant Stadium in Houston
(11) Virginia Commonwealth vs. (8) Butler (Saturday, 6:09 on CBS)
I'm reaching for ways to describe what VCU has done. Brandon Rozzell has shot 49 percent on his threes in the tournament -- and he's been merely the Rams' third-best option from the perimeter, behind Jamie Skeen (50 percent) and Bradford Burgess (59). When Purdue got hammered by Shaka Smart's team in the round of 32 and Matt Painter said VCU could beat any team in the country, I thought it was standard opponent puffery from a vanquished coach. I was wrong. A team that shoots like this from outside can quite literally beat anyone. The Rams have proven as much.
Now for the scary part: VCU's defense has actually been better than their offense in the tournament. In five games the Rams have allowed just 0.94 points per trip. Maybe part of that is demoralized major-conference foes late in games that have been decided, and maybe part of that is the statistical gift of playing the Florida State offense. Then again the Seminoles fared better against this D than Kansas did. With the possible exception of (strangely) FSU, no tournament opponent has been able to get anything at all going from the perimeter against Smart's team.
Yesterday my colleague Drew Cannon drew (har!) attention to the fact that opposing players 6-5 and under haven't been able to make shots against this defense in the tournament. That is obviously a point in the Rams' favor as they get ready to face 6-3 Shelvin Mack, who's accounted for an even larger share of his team's NCAA tournament shots than has Kemba Walker.
On defense I expect Butler to crowd the three-point line and take their chances with VCU's 43.8 percent two-point tournament shooting (as opposed to the Rams' 43.8 percent three-point tournament shooting). I'll also be interested to see how Brad Stevens chooses to defend Joey Rodriguez, who's recorded an astonishing 38 assists in just 275 personal tournament possessions. On offense I anticipate a dose of the old-school Matt Howard, as the Bulldogs look to get things done in the paint -- the one area where VCU's been somewhat normal on defense the past couple weeks. (Georgetown, to take one odd example, fared quite well inside. Of course all those makes came when they were down 20, but still.)
This game sets up nicely in irresistible force and immovable object terms. Only Florida State was able to hang with VCU, whereas Butler, famously, plays nothing but close games this time of year. I don't think the Rams will be able to put daylight between themselves and the Bulldogs, but a week ago I would have said the same thing about VCU vis a vis Kansas. Even now, on Friday, the prospect of the Horizon League and the Colonial squaring off for a slot in the national championship game is too spectacular and improbable for my brain to fully comprehend, except insofar as knowing that I am really looking forward to watching this happen.
(4) Kentucky vs. (3) Connecticut (Saturday, 8:49 on CBS)
If Kentucky wins the national championship, we will officially have ourselves a Trend, one where winning teams always feature a huge lumbering dude in the paint who is shunned by the NBA but who dominates in the last few weeks of his college career by inhaling offensive rebounds. I speak of course of Jorts, or Josh Harrellson if you must stand on ceremony. In the tournament he has pulled down 15 percent of the Wildcats' misses, evoking memories of what Brian Zoubek did last year for Duke. Over the past two weeks the best sight for any UK fan has been Jorts attempting a shot. He has connected on no less than 76 percent of his twos. Give him the rock, coach!
At the other extreme in terms of accuracy we find Brandon Knight, who during the first 39 minutes of each game struggles to find the range (in the tournament he's made just 37 percent of his twos) but then magically becomes Josh Harrellson in the final 60 seconds. Knight's game-winners against Princeton and Ohio State got Kentucky to Houston. Not that Knight hasn't had non-Jorts help. Quietly UK has shot virtually as well from outside in the tournament as VCU has. Give the credit there to DeAndre Liggins, Knight, Darius Miller, and, yes, Terrence Jones (a Derrick Williams-like 4-of-7).
John Calipari will need that outside shooting to continue, because his team's about to run across an offense that's playing extremely well. Even throwing out the Bucknell game just because I can, Connecticut is still scoring 1.14 points per trip in the tournament. And for that Jim Calhoun can thank Jeremy Lamb.
You heard me. I know Kemba Walker is great, I have been as amazed by his last nine games as anyone. But today I am starting the Equal Time for Jeremy Lamb Committee. In tournament play the freshman is taking as many shots in the UConn offense as Matt Howard has for Butler, and no one needs to be reminded that the big guy exists. Sure, Walker makes Lamb better by drawing the attention of opposing defenses, but Lamb's no role player. Keep in mind that this offense now consists almost entirely of Walker and Lamb. (Well, plus offensive boards from Alex Oriakhi, whose tournament offensive rebounding rate of 19 percent comprises a nifty instance of out-Jortsing Jorts. Can we call Oriakhi "Orts"?) In the tournament the freshman has made 52 percent of his twos and 73 percent of his threes. Lamb's the most efficient tournament scorer in Houston; in preparation for this game Calipari's paying more attention to him than writers have.
I say this before every UConn game, but watch early to see if Walker is able to draw fouls. Clark Kellogg made a comment during one of UK's games last weekend to the effect that they're foul-prone. Actually they're not, and whether or not Walker is able to get to the line anyway will be a huge factor in what is likely to be a close game.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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