Thursday, March 31, 2011 6:50 p. m.By Chris KnocheCSNwashington.com
At this point, dont you have to be an alumnus of either Kentucky or Connecticut to actually root for those teams in the NCAA Final Four this weekend? I mean, the other half of the national semifinals on Saturday features one of the most compelling matchups in years with the Butler Bulldogs playing the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams.
Were talking about an 8 seed against an 11 seed! Horizon League against the Colonial Athletic Association! One team that many thought was a year past its peak in Butler and a VCU club that was absolutely shredded by the entire ESPN network on Selection Sunday (oh, but that does seem like such a long, long time ago).
This game will forever serve as a kind of poster child for the true meaning of the term March Madness. If you had both in your Final Four, you are either lying or picked teams by throwing darts at a bracket.
Full disclosure here: I find myself caring very little about the second game in the doubleheader. The fact that it has a couple of perennial national championship contenders in it interests me about as much as hearing another Dick Vitale diatribe on how he still believes he was right about VCUs inclusion in the tournament field.
Because of that, well concentrate on that first game. David vs. David. Stevens vs. Smart and Skeen vs. Howard.
There is much made about Butlers experience of having been in the Final Four and how it will help the Bulldogs this weekend. I think that is overblown to a degree. Each team in each year will handle the Final Four a bit differently, but I dont see that as such a huge advantage to the Bulldogs. What actually is a huge advantage to them is that they beat Florida to get to Houston. Thats the same Gators team from which VCU coach Shaka Smart learned many of the offensive concepts he has employed so successfully during this miraculous run.
The new buzzword in these games has been spacing." Specifically, the whole notion was brought up because of the way the Rams have spread the floor and then proceeded to drain big three after big three. Spacing means very little if youre not hitting jumpers. If VCU had shot 30 percent against Kansas in the regional final and lost to the Jayhawks, people would have been talking less about spacing and more about shot selection."
So, back to the lessons learned against Florida. Butler was able to close out and contain a plethora of weapons on Floridas perimeter. I believe it gladly gave up points to the Gators interior players as a kind of trade-off against the more dangerous possibility that Florida could shoot the Bulldogs out of the game from the three-point line. VCU does not have nearly the inside presence of Florida, and Butler will enjoy the fact that it won't have to be nearly as vigilant in doubling down to get the ball out of the offensive post.
One of the most important battles in the game will involve what happens at point guard. For all of the offensive fireworks that weve seen from VCU and players like Jamie Skeen, Bradford Burgess and Brandon Rozzell, the absolute key to the VCU engine is veteran point guard Joey Rodriguez. He excels at the penetrate-and-pitch approach to set up his three-point shooters and makes excellent choices in break situations. On the other side, Butler has a lock-down defender in Ronald Nored.
On a micro-scale, that Nored-Rodriguez match-up will be critical. On a macro-scale, VCUs three-point shooting percentage may very well dictate which Cinderella moves on to Monday night.
One of the great subplots of the night will no doubt be the refreshing coaching match-up of VCUs Smart and Butlers Brad Stevens. Stevens is something right out of a Leave it to Beaver script. His complete modesty and an everyman nature are a complete contradiction to the way his teams, for two consecutive years, have absolutely and undeniably ripped the heart out of a handful of teams with a much higher profile than his.
Smart enters this game as much more of an unknown quantity. His team has reached the final with five straight wins against virtually every power conference in the land. The Rams have won that many by playing wide-open, full-throttle basketball that is an absolute joy to watch. Theyve also done it by exploiting the three-point line far more effectively than almost any team that has come before them in NCAA tournament play.
That story is so much better than the played-out, Calhoun-Calipari saga on the other side of the draw. Those guys and their programs get as much ink about NCAA issues as they do about their play on the court. While their mutual dislike of one another is really no secret at this point, they do have one thing in common.
Both are on the NCAAs speed dial.