Keeping Score

March Madness: The Final Four No One Predicted

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Butler Bulldogs guard-forward Alex Anglin carries the trophy from the floor after his team defeated the Florida Gators in overtime during their NCAA Southeast Regional college basketball game in New Orleans March 26, 2011

REUTERS/Sean Gardner

Poor Butler. After the Bulldogs topped Florida, 74-71, in a thrilling regional final game on Saturday, sending the little school from Indianapolis to its second straight Final Four, Butler, and Butler alone, was supposed to be college basketball’s darlings once again. But the Bulldogs are no longer crashing the party solo. Butler is almost like yesterday’s news, an also-ran. Because joining the Bulldogs for the Final Four in Houston will be another unknown school, a place called Virginia Commonwealth University, creating arguably the most surprising, and intriguing, Final Four in recent history.

(More on TIME.com: Watch four buzzer-beaters from this year’s tournament)

What a weekend for college hoops. Saturday saw two straight dazzling finishes. Butler, down eleven to Florida with ten minutes left, erased the deficit to force overtime.  With 1:20 remaining in the extra session and the Bulldogs, an eight-seed, trailing by one, Butler’s Shelvin Mack, who scored a game-high 27 points and is playing out of his mind this March, nailed a three-pointer from the top of the key, with a hand in his face, to give the Bulldogs a 72-71 lead. Butler increased the lead to 74-71, and Florida, a two-seed, missed a three-pointer at the last second, giving the Bulldogs another unexpected trip to the Final Four.

After its shocking run to the national title game last year, Butler lost its best player, Gordon Hayward, to the Utah Jazz of the NBA. At one point this season, the Bulldogs were 14-9, and a team that did not even belong in the tournament. That they are Final Four-bound, again, is incredible, and a testament to the coaching chops of Butler’s Brad Stevens, 34. Though he looks like he’s a senior in high school, Stevens might be the best Xs and Os technician in the game.

Right after the Butler-Florida battle, hoopheads got another treat: a back-and-forth game between third-seeded UConn and fifth seeded Arizona, which UConn finally survived, 65-63. In the final seconds, Arizona’s Jamelle Horne had a chance to win it with a three in the corner — and it just missed.

And then on Sunday VCU, out of Richmond and the Colonial Athletic Conference, whipped top-seeded Kansas, 71-61. Pundits screamed when VCU was invited to the tournament, as if it were some federal offense. The team’s regular season performance didn’t stack up to that of big conference schools like Alabama and Colorado, who were sent home. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a smart and passionate guy, said that the tournament selection committee was so dumb for inviting VCU, he wondered whether it knew “the ball is round.” Well, those folks not only know the shape of the ball, but maybe they knew something the rest of the country didn’t: VCU is pretty damn good. Aside from a close 72-71 call against Florida State in the regional seminal, the Rams beat major conference powers USC (in a play-in game!), Georgetown, Purdue and Kansas by an average of 15 points.

(More on TIME.com: See pictures of eccentric college mascots)

VCU will play Butler in the first national semifinal next Saturday, a game that just 192 of the 5.9 million brackets entered in ESPN’s annual contest predicted would ever happen. The combined ages of Stevens and Smart, 67, does not equal that of UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who is 68. UConn will face Kentucky, who beat North Carolina, 76-69, in the last regional final Sunday evening. It was an intense game that wasn’t decided until Kentucky’s DeAndre Liggins nailed a three-pointer with 35 seconds left from the corner to give Kentucky a 73-69 lead they would never surrender. “He’s a tough dude,” Kentucky freshman Terrence Jones says of Liggins, who also blocked a key North Carolina shot in the last minute. “Him having the heart to take that shot, that’s the difference between who we are now, and who we were a few months ago.” Kentucky lost 75-73, to North Carolina in early December.

Though Kentucky, the winningest program in men’s college basketball history, is by no means a Cinderella, this Wildcats team did lose five players off last year’s team to the NBA. This team had plenty of doubters within its rabid fan base. As the final seconds wound down, Kentucky coach John Calipari and Liggins embraced: Liggins mussed up Calipari’s manicured hair, though Calipari quickly fixed it. “I kissed him on the forehead is what I did,” Calipari says. “He didn’t kiss me back I can tell you that.”

The Wildcats also lost to UConn, its Final Four opponent, by 17 points, 84-67, back on November 24. “I was outcoached, badly,” Calipari says. “I was the JV coach, and we got smashed.” UConn guard Kemba Walker tore up Kentucky, scoring 29 points on 10-17 shooting. Walker has been tearing up teams all year. His step back jump shot, in which he essentially takes a backwards dribble to create room between him and a defender, might be the most unstoppable shot in college basketball. “I don’t want Kemba again, he’s out of his mind,” Calipari says. “Kemba Walker is not a good player. He’s a great player who has willed his team to where they are right now. And for some reason, I don’t think that will is going to diminish itself this weekend.”

Calhoun and Calipari are an intriguing coaching matchup. When Calipari coached at the University of Massachusetts in the 1990s, he and Calhoun used to recruit many of the same players, and there was bad blood between them. Their teams and players have also run afoul of NCAA rules. The NCAA suspended Calhoun for three games next season because of recruiting violations committed under his watch. This season, a Kentucky recruit, Enes Kanter, was ruled permanently ineligible for taking extra money while playing pro ball in his native Turkey. Calipari has now made three Final Fours with three different teams – UMass, the University of Memphis, and Kentucky – though the NCAA has vacated his two prior appearances. The NCAA said that UMass star Marcus Camby took money from an agent, and at Memphis, a player, believed to be current Chicago Bulls star Derek Rose, cheated on his SAT.

Calipari was asked to compare the three trips. “You’re supposed to [make the Final Four] at Kentucky,” Calipari says. “At the other schools, you’re not supposed to do it. And as a matter of fact, you’re supposed to do more, from what they tell me.” Yes, Kentucky, winner of seven national titles, won’t be satisfied with anything less than a title. But if, come late next Monday night, Butler or VCU is cutting down the nets as national champs, don’t be shocked one bit. After their performance over the past few weeks, nothing they do should surprise us anymore.

(More on TIME.com: See the evolution of the college dorm)

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