I sure picked a great time to start a sports blog. What a weekend! The Final Four is set and Opening Day and The Masters are just around the corner. It’s a great time of year to be a sports fan.
This year’s Final Four exhibits what’s great about sports: all 4 contestants have overcome substantial obstacles to place themselves on the brink of achieving their ultimate dream. Let’s break down the paths these teams have taken to get here.
VCU ESPN said they didn’t belong, a mid-major with double digit losses. C’mon, man! They’ll get spanked by USC in the first game! Somebody forgot to tell the Rams they don’t belong. VCU went to Dayton, played their way into the main bracket and then knocked off Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State, and Kansas (those are all “Big 6” conference powers if you’re scoring at home) to reach the Final Four. What a story! Shaka Smart and his undervalued group haven’t just skirted their way to Houston. With the exception of an overtime thriller against FSU, they’ve dominated their more storied opponents. They would be this year’s Butler, except…
ButlerBrad Stevens and his tiny school are back for “Hoosiers II: Electric Boogaloo.” Is there a better coach in America right now than Stevens? At mid-season, Butler looked like a Horizon league also-ran, having lost twice to UW-Milwaukee and to that traditional power, Youngstown State. But then something happened. Butler rediscovered itself without Gordon Hayward. Shelvin Mack, perhaps the most underrated player in the country, and Matt Howard, a versatile big man who absolutely refuses to lose, took this team on their backs and won four straight nailbiters, showing their collective grit and will by out executing Pitt, Wisconsin, and Florida along the way. Butler profited more than the other three from their opponents’ miscues (Pitt fouling, Wisconsin building working brick fireplaces, and Billy Donovan’s inexplicable end of game management), but that’s what the game is about: taking advantage of what the other team gives you. No one has done that better than Butler.
UConn A young team, predicted 9th in the Big East, surprised everyone in the pre-conference season, winning in Maui, going to Texas and knocking off the Longhorns, and destroying Tennessee at home. Kemba Walker was on everyone’s short list for player of the year. Then came the conference season. The Huskies struggled to their predicted finish and faced the daunting task of having to play 5 games in five days in the Big East tournament, four against ranked teams. No problem. Walker’s step-back deadeye game-winner against Pitt was Jordanesque. They held off Louisville and completed the greatest run in Big East tournament history. That’s neat, said the pundits. No way they can advance very far in the Big Dance. They’re just too worn out from their conference tournament run. All season long, the Huskies have heard from all quarters how they’re supposed to be too young, too thin, too tired…apparently they’re not listening.
KentuckySpeaking of hard of hearing, John Calipari’s young troops are apparently stone deaf. They’ve pulled off perhaps the most improbable march to the Final Four of all: winning unexpectedly at Kentucky! There is no other program that comes close to the pressure cooker that is Kentucky basketball. Remember the 1978 championship team under Joe Hall? They were so relieved to have lived up to their heavenly expectations of winning it all, they could barely even revel in victory. The 2010-11 Cats approached the season having lost five players in the NBA draft and learned their most talented recruit, Enes Kanter, would be ineligible for the season. That left three freshmen and a returning cast (Liggins, Miller, and Harrellson) who barely averaged double figures in scoring combined. The bench was bare as well, with UK playing most games with a 6-man rotation. They lost the SEC opener at Georgia and proceeded to lose six more SEC games, all on the road, and all involving late game melt-downs. UK fans tempered their expectations, figuring this inexperienced group might not even get past the first weekend of the tournament. Then came home victories over Florida and Vanderbilt and a thrilling gut-check win at Tennessee on the last day of the regular season, a close win on the road. Calipari’s six-shooters then ran through the SEC tournament. Their reward for their late-season push was a 4 seed (UF, whom UK had beaten twice in the previous two weeks got a 2 seed) in a bracket with North Carolina and overall number one, Ohio State. In the first game, Princeton gave UK all it could handle. Brandon Knight and Terrance Jones had been neutralized by the scrappy Tigers. Knight sank his only basket of the game to win it and the Cats moved on to face a West Virginia team that had burst their tournament bubble in the Elite 8 the year before. Trailing by 8 at half time, the Cats stormed out in the second half and secured a berth in the Sweet Sixteen. Here it would surely end. The Buckeyes had the formula that had beaten UK all season: a strong post presence combined with deadly outside shooting. The game was a war, both teams playing suffocating defense. OSU’s Jon Diebler nailed a three with 20 seconds left to tie the game at 60. Forsaking the timeout, Calipari watched as his clutch freshman point guard, Brandon Knight, pulled up from fifteen feet and gave UK the lead. Still, William Buford got a clean look at a three as the buzzer sounded which missed off the front rim. Next would be the Tar Heels, who had beaten UK back in December. They were on a roll themselves and had breezed through their game with Marquette while UK played a physically and emotionally draining contest with OSU. No way the Cats could have anything left. The Cats held the lead for most of the game and withstood a late UNC charge. The heroes were Josh Harrellson, who had been fouled out by Tyler Zeller in their previous contest, and Deandre Liggins, who drained a three in the final minute to put UK up by two scores. These two, along with Darius Miller had endured the abuse of Billy Gillispie and the disappointment of UK fans during their previous two seasons. Now they’ll hang a banner in Rupp Arena.
This is what it’s about: competing. Sports continually teach us that “it ain’t over til it’s over.” No group of championship participants in recent memory has illustrated this more than this year’s Final Four teams. Obviously, as a Kentucky fan, I’ll be cheering for the Cats on Saturday. But all of these teams are worthy of our cheers as they have lived out the best that sports has to offer.