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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Everything you know about the NCAA tournament is wrong

Butler couldn't repeat a Cinderella trip to the Final Four, VCU shouldn't have made the field, Kentucky couldn't reload quickly enough and UConn was finished at the end of the season.

April 01, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Virginia Commonwealth guard Darius Theus and his teammates are all smiles as they head out to the court for a practice session at Reliant Stadium in Houston on Friday.
Virginia Commonwealth guard Darius Theus and his teammates are all smiles… (Jeff Haynes / Reuters )

From Houston — Connecticut freshman guard Jeremy Lamb recently was struck with this thought: "Man, I can't believe we're in the Final Four."

He could have easily tossed Kentucky, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth into the mix.

Outside of two or three blindfolded dart throwers, no one believed in this Final Four.

Imagine, three weeks ago, writing out Saturday's lineup cards for Houston's Reliant Stadium: Butler versus VCU in one national semifinal game and Connecticut versus Kentucky in the nightcap.

Four coaches, two sides of the coin in the Final Four

That would have required VCU, a very un-Reliant double-digit-seeded team that couldn't win the Colonial Athletic Assn., surviving a "first-round" game in Dayton and then winning four more.

Yeah, right.

And Butler, which lost star Gordon Hayward off last year's impossible dream team, digging out from a Feb. 3 loss at Youngstown State.

Got any more snake oil?

"I never thought we'd be sitting here," Butler Coach Brad Stevens said on a seat in Houston.

And Connecticut's Huskies, who finished 9-9 in their league, would suddenly flip their twitch and go on an ultra-marathon run through the Big East tournament and, then, the West Regional?

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court would not connect those dots.

Then there's Kentucky, which lost five first-round picks to the NBA last year and couldn't get out of its regional. The Wildcats were simply going to rearrange the coast-to-coasters and win this year's East?

Put some bluegrass in a pipe and smoke it.

Yet, it all happened, and now here comes the fun part: All the experts who couldn't predict any of this are going to tell you who's going to win Saturday … and why.

Against the odds, Butler freshman Khyle Marshall gets his shot at Final Four

Some motormouths might tell you Butler and VCU is the junior varsity game and Connecticut-Kentucky is the real national title game.

Because that's what we were taught back in NCAA school: Kentucky and Connecticut have combined for 11 NCAA titles. Coaches Jim Calhoun and John Calipari are the serious, hardened veterans.

Butler's Coach Stevens, because of irritated eyes, has been forced to wear glasses that make him look even younger than 34.

"I have found that I'm a better coach when I can see than when I can't, so that's the reason I'm wearing the glasses," he said.

Shaka Smart, VCU's 33-year-old coach, could be found at Friday's practice diving after loose balls as part of a teachable moment.

"It's a drill we do pretty regularly with our team," Smart said.

Somewhere, Rick Majerus just fell off his chair.

Bottom line: Figure out this Final Four at your own peril.

Seek out insight, go on ESPN, break down the tape, make a prediction and see how silly you look Sunday.

Do not attempt to extrapolate anything from the regular season and apply it to anything we've seen so far.

Connecticut, for instance, defeated Kentucky by 17, in Hawaii, back in November.

What does that mean? Some of the freshmen who played in that game, well, they're shaving now.

Kentucky's Brandon Knight is four months wiser, but so is Connecticut's silky-smooth Lamb.

"I don't really feel like a freshman anymore," he said.

No one has a clue what's going to happen in the freakiest Final Four ever.

This is the first time a No.1 or No. 2 has no seed at the table. The total seeding number of the four schools, 26, tops the old record by four.

You can pontificate on high about the key players and possible pivot points. Surely, in the first game, Butler is going to have to control tempo and throw a spike strip down at the three-point line. VCU, in the tournament, has shot a ridiculous 44% from three-point range. The Rams have already made 12 three pointers in a game three times in this tournament.

Connecticut vs. Kentucky, of course, is all about the star guards, Walker and Knight.

Or maybe it will come down to a technical foul called on the assistant to the assistant trainer.

"I'll guarantee you right now that there will be a whole bunch of other folks … that will have a lot more to say in the outcome," Calhoun said.

Watch out for Billy the Benchwarmer.

Butler's Matt Howard has proved to have a knack for the dramatic in this tournament, playing pivotal roles in harrowing victories against Old Dominion, Pittsburgh and Florida.

But the difference maker could be Khyle Marshall, a freshman forward off the bench, who had 10 points and seven rebounds in the win over Florida.

Rob Brandenberg might turn up the hero for VCU. He played 20 key minutes in the Rams' win over Florida State, before returning to four scoreless minutes against Kansas.

Brandenberg sure sounds confident.

"Everyone keeps calling us a Cinderella," he said. "I understand because this is our first Final Four.… We don't believe we are a Cinderella team."

Charles Okwandu, Connecticut's senior center, averages only 2.9 points a game, but that's not to say the 7-foot center can't save victory with a game-winning block.

Kentucky doesn't have a deep bench, with six players averaging 28 minutes. With the Wildcats thin in the middle behind senior Josh Harrellson, though, seldom-used 6-11 junior Eloy Vargas might have to step in and do something special.

You might have already noticed this hasn't been the best tournament to break out your "Amazing Kreskin" impression.

Beware the weekend signposts and proceed with caution.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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