NCAA Final Four: 2011 unlike any other year

The NCAA Final Four this year will feature a unique first. Yes, UConn and Kentucky are there, but Butler makes a return visit and has company in the form of VCU.

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    Virginia Commonwealth fans cheer their team as they leave for the Final Four NCAA basketball tournament in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, March 30.
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The month of March never fails to bring the unexpected. But the madness that normally translates into a few upsets and a handful of thrilling buzzer beaters quickly turned into what few could have predicted: this year’s Final Four.

In a year when top analysts and the President of the United States were predicting a sweep by the top four picks, not a single one of the Dance’s major contenders managed to make it to the Final Four.

For the first time in the history of the NCAA Tournament, the Final Four does not contain a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. In fact, it contains third, fourth, eighth and, yes, even an eleventh-seeded team.

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The 2011 National Championship will be awarded to the last team standing in an unprecedented and unconventional group of title-seekers — Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, Connecticut or Kentucky.

BUTLER

Just one year ago, Butler was everyone’s favorite underdog. A true surprise in the 2010 Tournament, the Bulldogs were a miraculous story sent to the Dance straight from the movie Hoosiers. Butler, a No. 8 seed, proved themselves not just an inspiring team, but also a true competitor when the 2010 title was determined in Duke’s favor by a Bulldog 3-point attempt that missed by mere inches.

No one expected the Bulldogs to make that run in 2010, and even fewer expected Brad Stevens and his team to repeat it. But here they are. Although Butler’s regular season was flagged with losses to teams like Youngstown State and Milwaukee, the Bulldogs thrived in NCAA Tournament competition. Even when Florida’s trip to the Final Four looked like a lock — twice, no less — Butler came back and found a way to stay in the game and eventually advance. There’s something about this team that manages to find momentum right when it counts.

VCU

VC — who? The eleventh-seeded Rams are this year’s Bulldogs. A backlash of criticism flooded the media after Selection Sunday, and VCU was believed not worthy of even the newly created First Four. And here they are now entering the Final Four.

Playing with the classic chip-on-their-shoulder mentality has proven widely successful for the team that proved little during the regular season. After an impressive run to the Elite Eight, the Rams stunned Kansas with a 71-61 victory. VCU continues to thrive on plenty of the “swag” that head coach Shaka Smart’s team seems to know and care so much about.

UCONN

Undoubtedly two words come to mind for the Huskies postseason dominance of late — Kemba Walker. The national-standout guard simply dominates Connecticut’s offense. Walker propelled UConn, a No. 3 seed, past a host of late conference losses to the likes of Notre Dame, Louisville and more. The Big East Tournament sparked a revived team. Let the offensive frenzy begin.

An impressive run and a conference championship later, the Huskies have carried that momentum into the Tournament and taken off with it. Connecticut is rolling on Walker’s continuously impressive stat lines and his supporting cast of a young and talented group of freshmen. Downing San Diego State and an Arizona team fresh from upsetting Duke, UConn is the lone surviving face of the Big East.

KENTUCKY

Similar to the Huskies, it seems like the fourth-seeded Wildcats and their center Josh Harrellson are finding their rhythm at exactly the right time. Kentucky started its title quest with an assertive romp over the favored Florida Gators in the SEC Championship and found success to earn a narrow yet impressive victory against top-seeded Ohio State.

While Kentucky has an 84-67 loss at the hands of the Huskies on their schedule from November, keep in mind the growth that this team has experienced. This team has proven redemptive already. Just two games after that UConn matchup, the Wildcats fell to the Tar Heels — the same UNC team that Kentucky topped to find its way into the Final Four.

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