The men’s college basketball national semifinals tip off this evening from Houston. VCU battles Butler at 6:09 ET, and Kentucky squares off against Connecticut after. Here are the key players and trends to look for from each team:
Unreal. Ridiculous. Absurd. When describing how well VCU has shot three-pointers during the NCAA tournament, choose your hyperbole. They all apply. In their five tournament victories, the Rams, a team many hoops pundits said shouldn’t have been invited to the Big Dance, have made 44 percent of their attempts from downtown, a devastating rate for their opponents.
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Against Florida State and Kansas in the regional semi-finals and finals, VCU made nearly half of its threes (24 for 51). The team is averaging nearly 11 made three-pointers per game in the tournament. So see if VCU starts jacking, and making, long-range shots against Butler early in the game. You can live by the three, and die by the three. So if Ram shooters like Jamie Skeen, Joey Rodriguez, Brandon Rozzell go cold, Cinderella VCU may be going home.
Stevens and Butler’s Sideline Magic
Butler coach Brad Stevens, 34, looks like a high school bio teacher. But he’s actually basketball’s mad scientist, dreaming up different ways to outcoach his opponents. Keep an eye on Butler’s ball movement — the team executes a flawless half-court offense. And watch the Bulldogs coming out of time-outs. In the huddle, Stevens is a master of concocting plays that lead to wide-open layups. Simply put, Stevens might be the best tactician in the game today.
If a prized Kentucky recruit, Enes Kanter, hadn’t taken money from a pro team in his native Turkey and earned himself a permanent suspension from the NCAA, Kentucky big man Josh Harrellson may spent this season watching games with his buddies. The senior was a spare part, a permanent underachiever who averaged just 1.3 points and 1.2 rebounds last year. If Kanter played, Kentucky coach John Calipari would probably have booted Harrellson off the team.
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He didn’t, and now Harrellson may be the best center left in the tournament. Harrellson has averaged 14.8 points and 9 rebounds during this year’s March Madness, and more than held his own against higher-rated centers, like Jared Sullinger of Ohio State and Tyler Zeller of North Carolina. Most importanty for the Wildcats, Harrellson’s meaty build helps Kentucky run its half-court offense. Look for the 6′-10″, 275-lb. Harrellson to dribble towards Kentucky sharpshooters, like freshman Brandon Knight, and hand them the ball while screening their defenders, who can’t maneuver around Harrellson’s wide frame. The open shots that Harrellson creates could win Kentucky its first title since 1998.
UConn: Steppin’ Back
No Final Four player is more enthralling than UConn’s Kemba Walker. He’s been carrying the Huskies all year, and during the NCAA tournament, Walker has averaged nearly 27 points per game. The Bronx-born point guard has an almost unstoppable signature move, the “step-back” jump shot. Walker takes a dribble towards the basket, then almost hops backwards, creating space between he and the surprised defender, whose knees often wind up buckling. Walker hit a buzzer-beating step-back against Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament, and utilized the weapon down the stretch against Arizona in the West regional final.
If Walker keeps his hot hand this weekend and steps back into a championship, his individual post-season performance would rank among the greatest in college basketball history, right next to Danny Manning and Carmelo Anthony, who carried Kansas and Syracuse, respectively, to titles in 1988 and 2003.
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