HOUSTON - In a season with no dominant college team, the NCAA Final Four instead brings together the four toughest teams for today's national semifinals at 77,000-seat Reliant Stadium.
The first game, between Butler (27-9) and Virginia Commonwealth (28-11), is for the outsiders, the mid-majors who fought tooth and nail just to get into the NCAA tournament. The second, between traditional powers Connecticut (30-9) and Kentucky (29-8), matches two of the top point guards in Huskies junior Kemba Walker and Wildcats freshman Brandon Knight.
All four teams survived close calls to get this far, starting with VCU’s admission to the field as one of the last four teams. It’s not going to get any easier, and survival most assuredly will depend on defense.
VCU coach Shaka Smart acknowledged that the Rams’ 3-point shooting – particularly by Bradford Burgess and Jamie Skeen, both of whom are hitting better than 50 percent of their 3s in the tournament – has been a vital ingredient in their string of five upsets against power-conference teams.
Butler, which secured three of its four wins on the final possession, has been the toughest defensive team in the tournament.
“I don’t think it’s the key to making Butler play our game, but it’s the key to making the scoreboard move,” Smart said of VCU’s 3-point shooting. “We’ve shot the ball well from 3 all year, but certainly we’ve shot at a higher percentage these last five games. In some games, we shot more 3s than 2s.”
Butler’s Matt Howard said the Bulldogs must prepare for VCU to press on defense and switch between a variety of looks, including zone. But the Bulldogs are more concerned with taking the Rams out of their comfort zone on offense.
“When a team has shot the ball so well, you have to be aware of it,” Howard said. “It’s not going to be the final tell-all, but it will be important that we don’t give them easy looks.”
If any team can match Butler in going after loose balls and rebounds, it’s VCU.
“Butler is as sound as anybody we’ve played all year,” Smart said. “They’re not just going to start playing our way because you ask them to. You have to force them to. That’s going to be a battle of wills. If you don’t take the fight to them, you’re going to be in for a long night.”
For Kentucky, the obvious priority is containing Walker, who has averaged 26.3 points in nine postseason games – including the Big East tournament. That job has been assigned to 6-foot-6 guard DeAndre Liggins, who watched Walker score 38 in an early loss to the Huskies in Maui.
“He killed me; he killed us when we played them in November,” Liggins said. “If you let a great offensive player get comfortable, he is going to kill you, and that is what he did. He is going to score points, but it is a team effort, and our whole team has to guard him.”
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun expects Kentucky to devise ways to slow Walker, but the Huskies have been feeding off Walker’s energy.
As Calhoun said, “When you think you have the best player on the court, there is a psychological advantage to that.”