Stories of the heart: Final Four teams used ticker to advance

Jared Trexler
College Basketball Contributing Editor

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Baby-faced Brad Stevens has traveled the professional world over the last 24 months, to an improbable Final Four, and now, back again.

And yet his feet have never left the ground.

His fondness for the psychological side of the game has spearheaded the perspective he puts on Butler's ascension to the game's upper tier. When asked if the ride Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and a group of undeterred Bulldogs were on was unbelievable, Stevens scoffed at the notion that the journey would end any other way.

"Believable is a better term," he said. "It is a more positive term, it makes you live life a little bit better, it makes you a bit more thankful for the opportunities and take advantage of them."

After hearing that, and without ever meeting the game's brightest young coaching mind, I want to run through walls for this guy, which makes the barriers Mack and Howard broke through, to steal Stevens' verbiage, "believable."

Coaching cliches tell you that basketball's bounces always even themselves out in the end, but then how do you explain the breaks Butler received through the Southeast Regional?

It's easy; they created them with the mind and took advantage of them with the savvy IQ and "right-place-right-time" mantra plastered on the Bulldogs' white board from time to time. First, it was Howard's last-second lay-in off a loose ball scrum to beat Old Dominion in the second round. Then, it was the "what- were-you-thinking fouls?" that evened themselves out in the final seconds against Pitt, overshadowing what should have been the game-winning play called by Stevens in a timeout and run to perfection by Shawn Vanzant and Andrew Smith.

And then it was Stevens' wise-beyond-his-years feel for his players with the game slipping away against Florida, which executed its own game plan perfectly for nearly 35 game minutes, pounding the ball into Vernon Macklin to exploit the soft spot in the defensive post. The Gators also used a 2-3 zone focused on Mack, letting their back line cover the rim while their perimeter defenders extended their scope.

Stevens told freshman Chrishawn Hopkins to the enter the game, which wouldn't seem like a big deal if he hadn't played only seven minutes since January 19 and just one garbage minute in the Bulldogs' run through the Horizon League Tournament. Hopkins answered the call, dishing off to Howard for an easy basket and draining a trey moments later, trimming a nine-point deficit to four, allowing doubt to creep into the Gators' collective minds. Hopkins didn't make a last-second shot, but he provided the momentum Butler needed, and then the veteran stars rode it to force overtime and take control in the extra session.

Only a coach with complete faith in every dressing player would make such a bold move with the game, and the season, slipping away. That mindset is what makes the unbelievable much more believable in the mind of Stevens, who has pushed a mid-major school into the conversation of today's best programs.

Stevens didn't settle for last season's carpet ride that came within a revolution of finishing the made-for-TV movie with a national championship. He didn't believe that run was Butler's best, but to ironically steal a movie mantra, the best was yet to come.

Mid-major programs just don't make the Final Four -- George Mason in 2006, and Penn and Indiana State in 1979 -- let alone back-to-back trips, putting the Bulldogs in rarified air with North Carolina, UCLA, Florida and Michigan State, the last four teams to accomplish the feat. Maybe it's time we stop calling the Bulldogs hoops' version of Cinderella, stop shaking our heads at countless escape acts and what we perceive as miracles.

It's time to put the slingshots and glass slippers away, and come around to Stevens' side, the winning side of believability.

That aura of confidence traveled west to San Antonio, where the Virginia Commonwealth Rams, the same team that tanked three conference games down the stretch and finished fourth in a mid-major conference, were honing in on one of the tournament's all-time upsets.

Shaka Smart, the hottest name in coaching circles after using Bristol, Connecticut's dismissiveness to motivate his already talented team, was draining every ounce of determination from his outfit down the stretch.

As Kansas coach Bill Self marveled after his Jayhawks were torn apart by VCU's hard-charging tornado, "If we played shirts and skins today you wouldn't have much of a difference on players or how they look. They certainly outplayed us."

The depth of talent around the country is a topic for another day (perhaps in summer's dog days), but simply speaking, the gap has certainly closed, and fast. The Rams were the faster, more aggressive team, continually knocking the Big 12 regular-season and tournament champions back without letting up. They stuck their chests out and scoffed at the notion they would have to take the air out of the basketball and play a 180-degree reversal of their characteristic up-and-down game. They believed they could run, press and disrupt the nation's most-efficient offense while punishing the tournament's best defense off the dribble. The belief came from the brash, high-energy Smart, who jumped, danced even stood toe-to-toe with official Ted Valentine during a sideline exhibition that may have tired out onlookers, but gave life to those who mattered most.

Smart's relentless nature rubbed off on his players, who buried a barrage of threes and never stopped shooting and attacking, even when conventional wisdom may have called for a more prudent position or two with the lead down the stretch. The Rams wore down the mighty Jayhawks, who missed 21-of-23 treys because, in Smart's mind, had tired legs.

"If you watch closely, their players were tugging at their shorts for much of the game," said Smart. "When you don't have your legs, it's hard to make outside shots."

Not only did the Jayhawks never find their legs, but also couldn't quite find their footing after racing to an early 6-0 edge only to trail by as many as 19 points in the first half. The inevitable run came, narrowing the deficit to two, but the uphill climb sapped even more energy, and VCU's unabashed bravado, swagger and heart -- the traits of their coach -- never let them feel the nerves as the Morris twins brought Kansas to the edge of the lead.

These Rams now will sprint to Houston, and if they have their way, to ESPN's plush studios after the first Monday night in April. VCU has proven it belongs with a combination skill, led by point guard Joey Rodriguez and Wake Forest transfer Jamie Skeen, and sass befitting of Smart's personality and the "us- against-the-world" mentality he instilled several weeks back in Dayton.

From the First Four to the Final Four, all along the way, Shaka the World.

And then there are the two heavyweights of the Final Four, Connecticut and Kentucky, both with their own stories of perseverance and heart that led them to Houston.

Kentucky is clutch; it has proven so time and time again in this tournament with Brandon Knight's game-winner against Princeton to his three-point dagger to suck the wind out of North Carolina's sails after the Tar Heels had fought back from an 11-point first-half deficit to tie the game at 67 with just over three minutes to play.

That extra moxie, the ability to rise up to moments that warrant it, are traits that separate this team from last season's star-studded unit led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Last year's team may have been faster, stronger and more talented, but John Calipari's 2010-2011 Wildcats play more cohesively, complement each other and know their roles. Knight is the assassin, fearless and undeterred; DeAndre Liggins is the veteran glue guy; Josh Harrellson, the inspirational boar who throws his weight around, creating space for his teammates and enjoying the game's necessary dirty work. Together, this group of young and old has brought Kentucky back to the Final Four for the first team in 13 years, a startling stat considering the Wildcats' historical place in the game.

It's a marvel that stars like Tayshaun Prince, Rajon Rondo, Keith Bogans, Tyreke Evans and the aforementioned Wall have all worn Kentucky blue without tasting the experience Liggins, Harrellson and Darius Miller will embark on this weekend.

It all goes back to February, when the trio didn't score a single point in a loss to Ole Miss, drawing the exasperated Calipari to question the upperclassmen's leadership. "This is your team. Why are you relying on freshmen?" They stopped putting the pressure on Knight, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, instead allowing them to play naturally without the weight of Lexington on their shoulders.

Harrellson and Liggins scored 12 each, while Miller added 11, and that is the reason these Wildcats, and not North Carolina's young pups, are heading to Houston. Well, that and the spirit of big-game Brandon and the hearts of the East Regional champions.

While not everything was roses for the Wildcats on the court, the same holds true for Connecticut off the hardwood as the page turned on 2010.

Connecticut had reached the lowest of lows, coming off the program's first 16- loss season since 1986 and allegations of NCAA violations hanging over its head. In February, head coach Jim Calhoun was suspended three conference games next season after the NCAA ruled a recruit was given over $6,000 in improper benefits.

The young Huskies, with seven freshmen co-mingling with the star of the show, Kemba Walker, were not only facing an arduous Big East schedule but the stigma that comes along with suspected bending of the rules.

Connecticut was continually backed into a corner with each winning streak overshadowed by NCAA inquiry. Finally, pushed back against the wall one last time, UConn took on the mentality of its embattled coach and came out swinging, downing Arizona in the West Regional for its ninth consecutive victory in 19 days.

They say it's not advantageous to corner a dangerous predator, and UConn came out strong after being labeled "cheaters" and a "one-man show" for the last time. Jeremy Lamb continued his development with 24 points in the Sweet 16 victory over San Diego State and 19 more (12 in the second half) in the heavyweight bout against Arizona.

And the rest of the Huskies played with just as much vigor, showing the mettle of their coach to get back to their rightful place on the court while attempting to overshadow its current place off it.

"To have people all of the sudden dismiss us (after the last 20 years of success), I took it personally," Calhoun said. "If I take something personal, I'm going to do everything possible to make sure that perception is wrong. "


I'm not sure anyone wants advice from this corner after putting stock in four top seeds, only one which even advanced to a regional final. In a tournament based on streaky play and motivational tactics, each team rode its own story of the heart to Houston, where truly anything can happen.

In my eyes, the Huskies will have the best player on the floor in its matchup with the Wildcats, and will use Jeremy Lamb's length to bother Knight's perimeter game. If Alex Oriakhi can stay out of foul trouble, he should negate Kentucky's low-post scoring, forcing the Wildcats into a perimeter-oriented game that favors UConn.

In the first game, a contrast of styles and a match of wills will be determined by whichever team blinks first, and while VCU has not withered in the stage's increasingly bright lights, an entire week to marvel in its situation should be a factor, especially at the game's outset. Look for Stevens to draw on last season's experience as a major advantage, and Butler will try to force Skeen away from the basket with both Howard and Smith. That capability and the Bulldogs ability to close out on Brandon Burgess and Rodriguez will be the difference in a Butler victory.

In the final, UConn's speed will be an adjustment for the Bulldogs, who have not yet faced a prolific backcourt in this tournament. Walker's quick release can create shots against ball pressure, and Oriakhi's aggressiveness could find the Butler big men in early foul trouble.

From the depths of NCAA ire to the top of the world, UConn will, in this man's humble opinion, reach the top of the college basketball world for a third time next Monday night.

Trexler is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out Your Hoops Bracket." Click HERE to purchase the Kindle version...and stay tuned on an updated hardcopy edition this winter! Trexler also wrote "Penn State Football: An Interactive Guide To The World of Sports", a detailed look at the Nittany Lions' storied football history. It can be purchased HERE.

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