Get ready for the Final Four with these storylines

1 Comment

Pick a storyline. Any storyline. Odds are this Final Four has it.

There are underdogs, fab freshmen, bluebloods, fantastic coaches and superstars. But the odds are a good place to start. The long odds, that is.

Who knew?
Virginia Commonwealth won five straight games and pulled off the tournament’s biggest upset vs. Kansas Sunday. The chances of those five wins? At least 821:1. (Some were much, much higher.) Yet the 11-seed Rams not only defied those odds, they won four of those five games by double figures.

Compare that to their Final Four opponent, Butler. The 8-seed Bulldogs – in their second straight Final Four – had 100:1 odds of making it this far. As the power conference teams, Kentucky and Connecticut had far better odds. The 4-seed Wildcats were roughly 8:1. The 3-seed Huskies were 13:1.

If it seems like no one saw this coming, you’d be wrong. Two people – out of 5.9 million – did. Well, and the teams still playing. They expected this.

Team snapshots
Kentucky (29-8) is making its 14th Final Four appearance and first since 1998. It’ll be chasing its 8th NCAA title, which is what Big Blue Nation expected of coach John Calipari when he was hired in 2009. In the two seasons since, he’s racked up 64 wins and is 7-1 in the NCAA tournament. They lost five players to the NBA from last year’s Elite Eight team, yet knocked off Ohio State and North Carolina in three days.

UConn (30-9) awaits Kentucky in Saturday’s primetime matchup. It’s the Huskies’ fourth Final Four trip, all since 1999. They’ve won two titles and feature the best player left in the field in junior guard Kemba Walker. They’re the last Big East team remaining – of 11 bids – yet finished tied for ninth during conference play.

VCU (28-11) is here for the first time, and also became the first team to reach the Final Four by winning five games. For that, the Rams can thank their inclusion into the “First Four,” the result of the tournament’s expansion to 68 teams. Since then, the Rams have beaten teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12. They’re the biggest underdog in the field, but aren’t playing like it.

Butler (27-9), which followed up an improbable Final Four run last year with an even more unlikely run this season. The Bulldogs were just 14-9 on Feb. 3 and weren’t even headed for the NIT, let alone the Big Dance. They haven’t lost since (13 straight), though it’s hardly been a cakewalk. Butler won its four NCAA tourney games by 2, 1, 7 and 3 points. That clutch play puts the Bulldogs in elite company, too. It joined Michigan State, Maryland, Kansas, Florida, UCLA and North Carolina as programs that have made back-to-back Final Fours since 2000.

Not the worst ever
The four teams remaining comprise the highest combined seed total (26) since the NCAA began using seeds in 1979. The previous mark was 22 (set in 2000 when two 8 seeds made it). It’s also the first time no team seeded 1 or 2 made the Final Four.

However, the seeds are high, but the teams’ combined records are not the worst. The 2000 Final Four still holds that (ahem) honor.

Forget the re-seeding
You’ll hear chatter about the Final Four games – Kentucky-UConn; VCU-Butler – being the wrong matchups because they feature the two major conference teams and the two mid-majors. Too bad. TV executives might be nervous about the ratings, but that’s how the NCAA tournament goes. Sometimes, you don’t get exactly what you want, but you still enjoy it.

Good vs. Evil (or something like that)
Kentucky-UConn is the marquee matchup because of the programs’ tradition and previous NCAA tournament success. Yet both coaches have had NCAA issues. UConn’s Jim Calhoun was just found guilty for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance. Calipari’s technically never been to a Final Four, though he technically wasn’t cited in those vacated Final Fours at UMass and Memphis.

Contrast that to their counterparts at Butler and VCU and it’s an easy angle to see. Then again, neither Brad Stevens, 34, or Shaka Smart, 33, have been around long enough to do anything other than coach. This is Stevens’ fourth year at Butler and Smart’s second at VCU.

About that “mid-major” label
That’s the de-facto term for any team not playing in the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10 or SEC. (Another measure includes the Mountain West.) Those conferences bring in massive amounts of money because of their football revenue, which is doled out to the basketball teams. Those resources are why the major conferences get most of the NCAA tournament bids. But with three mid-major teams making the Final Four four times  since 2006, the term might need to be redefined. At least for the teams who consistently defy those expectations like Butler, Xavier and Gonzaga.

The freshmen
Who needs ‘em? All four. But mostly Kentucky and UConn.

The Wildcats rely on three – Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. They account for nearly 75 percent of the ‘Cats’ shots. Knight’s been especially handy. Two game-winning shots in four games? Not bad.

UConn also plays three – Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith. Lamb’s their main scoring option behind star Kemba Walker, while Napier and Smith have played increasingly larger roles as the season’s progressed.

Butler and VCU each only use one, but both played key roles in their Final Four runs. Bulldogs forward Khyle Marshall grabbed seven rebounds and scored 10 points in a win over Florida, while Rams guard Rob Brandenberg got 20 key minutes vs. FSU.

The star
Let’s close with the big one. Knight’s been great, but Walker’s the guy who capable of carrying the Huskies to a title, much like Carmelo Anthony did for Syracuse or Danny Manning did for Kansas. He’s been spectacular – and then some – all season, and just as good the last four games. He’s averaging nearly 27 a game and hitting 44 percent of his shots. He’s unguardable at best, difficult to stop at worst. Kentucky may be the favorite to win, but Walker’s the reason why it’s foolish to count out the Huskies.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Sister Jean: “I don’t care that you broke my bracket.”

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

As Missouri Valley Conference player of the year Clayton Custer came off the floor after Loyola earned its spot in the Elite Eight after beating Nevada, he had to make a quick apology.

He had to tell the Ramblers’ star fan Sister Jean he was sorry. She, of course, had picked Loyola’s Cinderella run to end in the Sweet 16 in her bracket before the start of the tournament.

The apology was quickly accepted.

“I said I don’t care that you broke my bracket,” Sister Jean said. “I’m ready for the next one.

“For a nice little school like ours, we are just so proud of them.”

Michigan rolls past Texas A&M into Elite Eight

Getty Images

Historically known as a team that lived and died with the three-ball, No. 3-seed Michigan had spent the first weekend of the NCAA tournament proving history wrong.

In an ugly game in their opener against Montana, the Wolverines shot 5-for-16 from three while turning the ball over 14 times and managing a measly 61 points. Against Houston in the second round, Michigan shot 8-for-30 from beyond the arc, with one of those threes coming courtesy of Jordan Poole at the buzzer, sending the Wolverines into the Sweet 16 with a 64-63 win.

Put another way, Michigan looked the part of the defensive grinder that they turned into this season.

Against No. 7-seed Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, however, the Wolverines turned into the Golden State Warriors.

Michigan bested the number of three that they had made in the tournament to date, hitting 14-of-24 bombs while shooting 62 percent from the floor in a 99-72 win over an Aggies team that had finally, for the first time since November, looked the part of the SEC title contender that they have the talent to be.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led the way with 24 points, seven assists and five boards for Michigan. Mo Wagner chipped in with 21 points — 14 of which came in the first 15 minutes of the game — while Zavier Simpson added 11 points, five boards, five assists and five steals. Charles Matthews had 18 points. Duncan Robinson busted out of his slump with 10 points, including a couple of threes and a dunk to boot.

Put another way, the Wolverines were firing on all cylinders.

And that should terrify everyone on the left side of the bracket.

Entering this weekend’s games, Michigan was the best defensive team left in the tournament. They ranked third-nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and that’s not a fluke or a flaw within KenPom’s formula. The Wolverines can absolutely grind teams down defensively. They are so much more athletic on the perimeter than they have been in past seasons, and with Simpson playing as the point man for them on that end of the floor, they’ve simply overmatched everyone that has gotten in their path on that end of the floor.

That’s why they were able to win two games in the first weekend of the tournament despite scoring a total of just 125 points.

At some point, you knew they were going to find a way to be better on the offensive end, and the Aggies were the team they needed to see.

Texas A&M’s strength in their front line. Tyler Davis, Robert Williams, D.J. Hogg. They have so much size along that front line that it can overpower just about anyone this side of Duke. But what those big, burly dudes bring in the paint they lack on the perimeter, and Michigan was able to spread them out and beat them down the floor in transition. It didn’t help matters that the Aggies struggled with the idea of passing the ball to the guys in maroon instead of the guys in yellow during the first half, and the end result was a Michigan team that found their confidence.

At one point, they were 9-for-12 from three. They made 10 of their 14 threes in the first half. The score at one point was 52-23. It was a three-point avalanche of Villanovian proportions.

And here’s the kicker: The Aggies actually did manhandle Michigan inside. Tyler Davis and Robert Williams combined for 36 points on 17-for-25 shooting.

It didn’t matter.

Michigan will advance to face the winner of No. 4-seed Gonzaga and No. 9-seed Florida State tonight, and regardless of who they end up getting in the Elite 8, they will be taking on a team that is much, much, much better suited to matching up with Michigan’s spread attack.

But Michigan has their confidence back.

I don’t expect that we’ll be seeing them shoot 28 percent from three on Saturday.

And that defense?

It’s not going anywhere.

And the Wolverines won’t have to face a team seeded higher than them until the national title game.

This run may not be close to over yet.

No. 11 Loyola moves on to Elite Eight after beating No. 7 Nevada

Getty Images

It was supposed to cripple the league – and maybe it still will in the long-term – but it also gave birth to an idea. It created space to dream and imagine. There simply was reason to hope.

Wichita State’s decision to leave the Missouri Valley Conference for the AAC robbed the league of its marquee program and, the thinking went, its national relevance. With the conference’s dominant force suddenly gone, though, there was a question that suddenly became pertinent. Once perhaps delusional, it was not essential.

“It’s this huge overwhelming wave of optimism,” Loyola coach Porter Moser told NBC Sports in January. “I think every single program is asking, ‘Why not us?’”

Two months later, the Ramblers are still asking that question, but for a different audience. Once, they just asked it of themselves. Then of the conference. Now, of the country.

The Ramblers’ run through March continued Thursday as they won a spot in the Elite Eight by toppling No. 7 Nevada in the South Region semifinals, 69-68, in Atlanta to be just 40 minutes shy of a Final Four that last hosted Loyola in 1963.

Fifty-five years later, it’s now fair to ask, why not these Ramblers?

Loyola and its magnetic, lovable and charming sensation of a team chaplain, Sister Jean, haven’t come up with an answer to that question yet. There has been no reason it can’t be Loyola through an entire MVC season, Arch Madness and three NCAA tournament opponents.

There are no lottery picks on the floor. Moser is in his second stint in the Valley after being fired from Illinois State in 2007. They don’t play with much flash or even speed.

Loyola, though, makes it work.

All the Ramblers have done this season is win. They won in Gainesville against Florida. They won 15 MVC games and the league title with a four-game cushion. They skated through the conference tournament. Buzzer-beaters got them by Miami and Tennessee in the first weekend. In the Sweet 16, they didn’t spare a fellow Cinderella, instead dispatching Nevada with lethal offensive efficiency.

Nevada looked like it may overwhelm Loyola early as it built a 12-point lead less than seven minutes into the game. The Ramblers, though, struck back by keeping the Wolf Pack off the board for nearly the last 8 minutes of the first half to take a four-point lead into the break.

The strong play considered on the other side of halftime for Loyola, which astonishingly made its first 13 shots of the second half. Still, despite the perfect start, the Ramblers only briefly took a double-digit lead before Nevada sliced it back down below 10.

Loyola’s inability to build a substantial lead came back to bite it as Nevada, the comeback kids of this tournament, mounted its attack on the deficit and had it erased before the under-four timeout, setting up the final frantic minutes of a battle.

With a one-point lead and less than 10 seconds on the clock, Loyola got a 3-pointer from Marques Townes to seal victory. The Ramblers shot 75 percent from the floor in the second half, but still needed a clutch shot. And they got it.

Nevada Caleb Martin scored 21 points and Jordan Caroline added 19. They spearheaded a Wolf Pack offense that looked like its speed and athleticism just might be too much for Loyola. There were times when the Ramblers just looked overmatched. But there were more times when they just out-executed Nevada anyway.

Loyola is in the Elite Eight. The question persists.

Why not Loyola?

2018 March Madness: Fans in Times Square pick fake teams in Sweet 16 predictions

1 Comment

NBC Sports went into Times Square this week to ask basketball fans for their Sweet 16 picks.

The only problem?

The teams in the games are not actually playing in the NCAA Tournament.

They aren’t even actually teams.

Hilarity ensued.

Miami’s Bruce Brown declares for draft without an agent

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Bruce Brown wants to hear what the NBA has to say.

The Miami sophomore has declared for the draft but will not hire an agent, the school announced Thursday.

The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 11.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game during his second season with the Hurricanes. He did, though, see his shooting numbers take a tumble compared to his freshman season with his field goal percentage down from 45.9 to 41.5 percent and his 3-point shoot go from 34.7 to 26.7 percent. There’s also the matter of a foot injury that required surgery and kept him off the floor for the ‘Canes’ last 12 games.

By declaring for the draft, Brown can get in front of NBA teams, who will likely take a very close look at his shooting mechanics after that sophomore season downturn. It will also be an opportunity for him to build up his reputation in the professional ranks after spending much of his sophomore season injured.