Tom Oates: There's nothing surprising about teams in the Final Four

2011-03-30T06:00:00Z 2012-05-23T17:56:56Z Tom Oates: There's nothing surprising about teams in the Final FourTOM OATES | toates@madison.com | 608-252-6172 madison.com

After debating the bubble-bursting selection process, refereeing at the end of close games, brackets blown to smithereens and Shaka Smart's next employer, finally there is something we can all agree on regarding the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Connecticut, Kentucky, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth comprise the most unlikely Final Four ever.

On the surface anyway, that claim seems indisputable.

There isn't a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed in the bunch. UConn and Kentucky have pedigrees, but the Huskies lost seven of 11 at one point and the Wildcats couldn't win a close game on the road until March.

Butler and VCU are so-called mid-majors that were strong enough to make the Final Four even though both lost a top-15 pick in the NBA draft. The Bulldogs trumped their improbable run to the 2010 Final Four by making another one. The 11th-seeded Rams had to win a game in the new "First Four" just to make the real tournament.

Still, there's a problem with the notion that this is the most unlikely Final Four ever: It's not true. Upon closer inspection, there is nothing at all surprising about the four teams that will gather in Houston.

This quartet, ladies and gentlemen, is what college basketball has become in this era of no dynasties and great players who are here today and gone tomorrow. The upshot is a tournament filled with relatively equal teams hoping to benefit from favorable matchups, catch a break or two in close games and get on a run.

Indeed, the tournament is so wide-open that very few Final Four groupings would qualify as a surprise. This weekend's participants represent a cross-section of the teams that now dot the land.

One (Kentucky) is powered by three freshmen from the one-and-done recruiting lists. One (UConn) has a first-team All-American who won't let his team lose. One (Butler) is a mid-major that plays like a Big Ten team. And one (VCU) is the by-product of an upwardly mobile coach and veteran players who have one shot at glory.

Above all, this Final Four has contrasts. One semifinal has blue-blooded programs with young, A-list talent and veteran coaches (Jim Calhoun of UConn, John Calipari of Kentucky). The other semifinal has off-the-radar programs with older, more-developed players and 30-something coaches (Brad Stevens at Butler, Smart at VCU).

Those pairings guarantee a mid-major will play in the final for the second year in a row. It might even be Butler, which came within a Gordon Hayward half-court shot of beating Duke for last year's title.

The experts talk about things like scoring margins and offensive-efficiency ratings when handicapping the tournament, but a simpler model has surfaced as parity has taken over: Just get hot at the end of the season.

The Final Four teams have only one regular-season conference title among them. That would be Butler, which tied two other teams in the Horizon. Kentucky had the third-best record in the SEC, VCU was fourth in the Colonial and UConn was ninth in the Big East.

It was a different story in the conference tournaments, however. VCU was the only team that didn't win a title, and it lost in the final.

The biggest reason the small schools are beating the name schools is because the NBA's one-and-done rule is finally having an effect. The big boys have great talent but lack experience because players keep leaving; the litte guys are just the opposite. That has evened out the playing field considerably.

Although Kentucky had five players taken in the NBA draft's first round, Calipari simply restocked with more one-and-done types. They've been playing like veterans lately, but there's no telling when their inexperience will show.

UConn has junior guard Kemba Walker, who is a Jimmer Fredette away from being the national player of the year. The athletic supporting cast is coming on, but UConn, for all intents and purposes, is a one-man show.

Butler returns guard Shelvin Mack and post Matt Howard from last year, plays physical defense and wins close games. It is 9-1 in the tournament this year and last, twice beating No. 1 seeds and twice beating No. 2s.

VCU lost Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick Larry Sanders but, like Butler without Hayward, still has a strong outside-inside combo in Joey Rodriguez and Wake Forest transfer Jamie Skeen. Smart, a Fitchburg native and former Oregon High School athlete, has pushed all the right emotional buttons and that shouldn't change.

All a team really needs to have a chance in the tournament during this watered-down era is two big-time players, a solid supporting cast and a little luck. UConn, Kentucky, Butler and VCU all have that, which is why this Final Four field is no surprise. And why no outcome this weekend would be a surprise, either.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.

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