Who will Cut down the Nets in Houston?
by Gus Elvin
After another exciting year of NCAA basketball and 3 scintillating weeks of March Madness the field of 68 has been whittled down to the Final Four. This years Final Four is a bit of a surprise as no #1 or #2 seeds remain with Connecticut being the highest seeded team remaining as a #3 seed. In game 1 on Saturday, Cinderella Virginia Commonwealth an 11 seed takes on fellow surprise 8th seeded Butler. Meanwhile, the other semi-final features two household names in college basketball as Connecticut squares off with Kentucky. These two college basketball titans have qualified for the NCAA tournament a total of 80 times and the have reached the Final Four a combined 17 times. All 4 of these teams have survived and advanced up to this point but now it all comes down to execution as all 4 teams look to take that next step and reach Monday’s National Championship game. Like most so far this tournament has gotten the better of me in terms of picks but that’s all in the past as I try to end a good note with my Final Four selections.
Game 1- Saturday 6:09PM : #11 Virginia Commonwealth vs # 8 Butler
In game 1, two Cinderellas face off as Butler tries to return to the National Championship game for the 2nd straight season while the Rams hope to continue to silence the doubters who claim that they didn’t deserve an at large bid. VCU is just the third 11 seed ever to reach the Final Four joining fellow CAA member George Mason (2006) and LSU(1986). The Rams were one of the last 4 at large teams to make the NCAA field and had to win an extra game to even face Georgetown in round 2. Coach Shaka Smart has done a wonderful job motivating his team all tournament long and I expect the Rams to come out full of energy and ready to go on Saturday evening. The Rams have relied on the three point shot all season specifically in the NCAA Tournament as the Rams are shooting 43 percent from long range in the NCAA’s led by Jamie Skeen(50%), Brandon Rozell(49%) and Bradford Burgess (59%). Butler on the other hand is back in the Final Four under Brad Stevens as the Bulldogs have thrived in March once again even after losing their leading scorer Gordon Hayward early to the NBA. For Butler 2 players carry most of the load as guard Shelvin Mack and foward Matt Howard combine for 32 points good enough for 45 percent of Butlers average per game total. Mack is a legitimate game changer and will have to play big for Butler this weekend if the Bulldogs want to get back to the NCAA final and win it this time around. Mack has been tremendous so far in the tournament and has played big in Butler’s biggest games 27 points in last weekend’s win over Florida and 30 points against top seeded Pittsburgh. Outside of the explosive Mack and the unorthodox but effective Howard Butler really doesn’t have all that much in terms of scoring but a key x-factor in this game could be the emergence of a third scoring option for Butler. If Shawn Vanzant or Andrew Smith can chip in around 15 points and become a third scoring threat for Butler, the Bulldogs will advance to Monday’s title game but if Butlers role players and reserves struggle, Butler could be in trouble as Mack and Howard can’t do it alone. In this game the key for me will be pace and tempo. VCU likes to press and the key for them will be scoring the ball and then setting up their press which has caused teams like Purdue and Kansas problems so far in this tournament. Butler on the other hand is way more deliberate and will run longer sets and try to free up Shelvin Mack on the perimeter and find Howard inside. Howard a terrific offensive rebounder will have a definite advantage down low and must convert second chance opportunities if Butler wants to win this game. For me this game comes down to 2 keys first and foremost tempo and pace and whoever controls the speed and style of the game will win. The second key will be rebounding as VCU struggles to rebound while Butler is better inside and has a size advantage down low with Howard, Smith and Khyle Marshall. In the end I like the Rams in a nail biter as the floor general Joey Rodriguez will step up in the clutch and lead the Rams onto the Tournament Championship. VCU is playing like a team of destiny and I think their hot shooting will continue as Jamie Skeen, Brandon Rozell and Bradford Burgess will all knock down threes as the Rams get Butler out of their comfort zone and outrun and outgun the Bulldogs. Butler will be in it until the very end but ultimately will come up just short of back to back National Championship game appearances.
Pick: VCU 75-Butler 73
Game 2-Saturday 8:49PM: #4 Kentucky vs #3 Connecticut
In the nightcap, two marquee programs face off with a spot in the National Championship on the line as Kemba Walker and Connecticut tangle with John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats. This game is a rematch of the Maui Invitational Final in which UConn won 84-67 behind 29 points from Kemba Walker. Walker who was a finalist for National Player of the Year has led the Huskies who were picked to finish 10th in the Big East in the preseason all the way to this weekends Final Four. Walker a junior is averaging 24 points a game while also grabbing 5 rebounds and 4 assists and has hit every big shot for Connecticut all season long. Outside of Walker, UConn relies on a lot of youth as its next five leading scorers are either freshmen or sophomores led by freshman Jeremy Lamb. Lamb who emerged as the season went on ranks 2nd for the Huskies in scoring at 11 points per game but during the Tournament he has stepped up his play another notch as the freshman is playing like a seasoned veteran averaging 18 points per game of the Huskies. In the post the key for UConn will be Alex Oriakhi who has really improved in his sophomore season averaging 10 points and 9 rebounds for Jim Calhoun’s club. Kentucky also has relied on youth as three freshman have led the Wildcats to the final four headlined by Brandon Knight. Knight who hit the game winning shot in round 1 against Princeton has been tremendous all season long leading the Wildcats to a 29-8 record and an SEC Championship. Knight leads UK in scoring at a shade under 18 points a game and is followed by fellow freshman Terrence Jones(17pts) and Doron Lamb(12pts). UK has not missed a beat after losing 5 players in last summers NBA Draft and are a much better shooting team than last years team led by John Wall. The Wildcats are shooting 40 percent from 3-point range on the season and shoot a very high percentage from the field, most of the scoring coming from their 3 top freshman. UK inside is led by Josh Harrellson a senior who had not played much coming into the season but has thrived in his final campaign averaging 8 points and 9 rebounds a game. Harrellson has been even better in the NCAA Tournament averaging 15 and 9 while outplaying bigs like Jared Sullinger and John Henson along the way. In this game I like Connecticut as the Huskies led by Kemba Walker are 12-0 in single elimination situations as they won the 3 games in the Maui Invitational, 5 games at the Big East Tournament and are now 4-0 in the NCAA Tournament. In this game I think Kemba Walker will take over and will his team to victory as the junior guard will go for 30 points and lead the Huskies back to the National Championship game. Walker is a tremendous leader and clutch scorer and will be the difference on Saturday night as UConn will beat Kentucky for the second time this season, this time in a much closer contest. The x-factor in this game will be Alex Oriakhi the sophomore center for Connecticut who scored 18 points and 11 rebounds in the first match-up against Kentucky. Oriakhi is a game changer on the defensive end and I think his presence will block or alter many of the Wildcats’ looks from in close. Orakhi will outplay Harrellson in the paint and Walker will take over in the 2nd half as the Huskies outlast the young and talented Wildcats to move one game away from a National Title.
Connecticut 76 Kentucky 71
*Check back later this weekend for a preview of Monday’s National Championship Game.