Get ready for the Final Four with these storylines

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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.

No. 3 Gonzaga improves to 20-0 with win over Portland

SPOKANE, WA - DECEMBER 07:  Nigel Williams-Goss #5 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs drives against the Washington Huskies in the first half at McCarthey Athletic Center on December 7, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  Gonzaga defeated Washington 98-71.  (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
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PORTLAND, Ore. — Zach Collins had 13 points and No. 3 Gonzaga remained the nation’s only undefeated Division I team with an 83-64 victory over Portland in a game Monday night that was rescheduled because of a winter storm earlier this month.

The Bulldogs have won 20 straight games, their longest streak since winning that many in the 2005-06 and 2003-04 seasons. Gonzaga is now 8-0 in West Coast Conference play.

Silas Melson and Jordan Mathews each added 12 points for the Zags, who led by as many as 33 points and had four players in double-digits.

Rashad Jackson and D’Marques Tyson had 15 points apiece for Portland, which won its first two games in conference but has lost six straight since then. The Pilots (9-11, 2-6 WCC) are playing their first season under former NBA player and coach Terry Porter.

The game was originally scheduled for Jan. 7, but a winter storm in Portland forced it to be postponed. Portland opened up extra seats and Gonzaga’s fans outnumbered the home team’s crowd.

The two teams had met just two days ago in Spokane, with Gonzaga leading from the start to win 73-52. But Portland, playing without top scorer Alec Wintering, out-rebounded the Zags 41-33 and held them to 45 percent shooting.

The Zags fared better on Monday, out-rebounding Portland 41-36 and shooting 42 percent.

Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who left the game against Portland because of a left hip injury with about five minutes left, was questionable against Portland but started.

But freshman forward Killian Tillie appeared to injure his right leg under Portland’s basket with 9:38 to go in the game, and teammates helped him from the floor. The 6-foot-10 Tillie, who is from France, is averaging 4.8 points this season.

Wintering, a senior, was hurt in last Thursday’s game against San Francisco and the Pilots announced this weekend that his college career was over because of a torn left ACL.

Wintering averaged 19.5 points and 5.6 assists a game this season. He was on Portland’s bench in street clothes, but during warmups before the game and at the break he was on the court, offering his teammates advice and encouragement.

Gonzaga jumped out to a 9-0 run but the Pilots closed within 9-8 following Philipp Hartwich’s dunk. Portland was competitive, answering Melson’s 3-pointer for Gonzaga with Jackson’s 3 that got the Pilots within 22-19.

But the Bulldogs responded with an 8-0 run to go up 30-19 and went into halftime with on a 16-4 run for a 38-23 lead. Melson and Jonathan Williams led Gonzaga at the break with eight points apiece. Jackson’s 13 first-half points for Portland were a new career high for a game.

Gonzaga extended the lead to 50-26 on Przemek Karnowski’s layup with just under 16 minutes to go, the Bulldogs were on the way to their 20th straight win.

THE BIG PICTURE:

Gonzaga: The Zags have won eight straight against Portland. … The Bulldogs’ longest winning streak was 22 games, set in the

Portland: Portland Trail Blazers President Neil Olshey was at the game. … The game, originally scheduled to be played over winter break, was sold out. So despite school being back in session, the usual student section wasn’t as large for the televised game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS: Gonzaga rose a spot from No. 4 and only trails No. 1 Villanova (19-1) and No. 2 Kansas (18-1) in the AP rankings released earlier in the day. The Bulldogs were also ranked No. 3 in the Feb. 23, 2015 poll.

VIDEO: Andrew Jones nails deep three to give Texas win over Oklahoma

AUSTIN, TX - DECEMBER 27: James Banks #4 and Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns react during the game between the Texas Longhorns and the Kent State Golden Flashesat the Frank Erwin Center on December 27, 2016 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
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Texas freshman Andrew Jones nailed one of the most heroic game-winners of conference play with a dagger against Oklahoma on Monday night.

The Longhorns put together an 84-83 win over the Sooners as Jones took the final possession off of a missed free throw to dribble across the floor and fire an NBA-range bomb over a defender.

This win isn’t going to save a struggling Texas season, but it’s a nice win and a confidence-boosting shot for a McDonald’s All-American who has the potential to be a big-time player with some more seasoning. Jones finished with 16 points in the win as the Longhorns are now 8-12 and 2-6 in the Big 12.

(H/t: Mike Leslie)

VIDEO: Dennis Smith Jr. caps N.C. State win with thunder dunk

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 23:  Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack drives in for a dunk as time expires during their win against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 23, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. North Carolina State won 84-82.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Dennis Smith Jr. showed why he is a potential top three pick in this year’s draft and why he was the reason many thought that the Wolfpack could be an Elite 8 team coming into the season on Monday, popping off for 32 points and six assists as N.C. State won at No. 17 Duke, 84-82.

He capped off the performance with the perfect exclamation point, a dunk contest-worthy throwdown:

Let’s get another angle of that dunk, shall we?:

Three Takeaways from N.C. State’s win over No. 17 Duke

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 23:  Head coach Mark Gottfried talks to Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack during their win against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 23, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. North Carolina State won 84-82.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Freshman Dennis Smith Jr. had a monster performance as he scored 32 points and had six assists to lead the Wolfpack past No. 17 Duke for an ACC road win.

Here are three takeaways for an important win for N.C. State.

1. This is the Dennis Smith Jr. (and N.C. State) that we envisioned 

Before this season N.C. State received a lot of hype with some pundits — including NBCSports.com — because people knew that freshman Dennis Smith Jr. was a lottery pick talent and there were other pieces around him that could be productive. Smith has mostly lived up to his top-five hype this season but Monday night’s game saw the North Carolina native go to another level.

Smith comes from a family of N.C. State fans. It is part of the reason he selected the Wolfpack even though they aren’t a one-and-done factory like some other schools. The Wolfpack hadn’t won in Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995 and this year’s N.C. State had lost four of five ACC games entering Monday.

And Smith went completely bonkers. He finished with 32 points and six assists as he was 4-for-6 from three-point range.

At the end of the first half when it looked like Duke might take a double-digit lead into the break, Smith converted a three-point play and followed it up with a tough, contested three to make it a six-point game. The second half saw more of the same from Smith as he nailed pull-up threes, got to the rim and finished through traffic. It was the type of mesmerizing performance that gets casual basketball fans excited about a player before March Madness begins.

Smith wasn’t the only good player for N.C. State on Monday. Freshman big man Ted Kapita gave crucial minutes inside as he registered his first career double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Abdul Malik-Abu was a great secondary option for Smith as he contributed 19 points and nine rebounds. Maverick Rowan (nine points) hit a key late three and some important free throws.

When this team has all of its pieces going you can see why so many people believed N.C. State was capable of the Sweet 16. It feels like this team could be in for a run and the road game at Louisville on Sunday is another major test.

2. Duke is still figuring out its ideal rotation (while getting some answers)

Interim coach Jeff Capel went to some interesting lineup choices on Monday night. Capel started the game by using the lineup that jumpstarted Duke’s second half against Miami. That meant increased minutes for freshman center Marques Bolden as he was paired with Jayson Tatum (16 points) and Frank Jackson.

Seniors Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson were the interchangeable parts who played the most minutes in the first half for the Blue Devils and the second unit included Grayson Allen (13 points), Luke Kennard (20 points) and Harry Giles.

The Blue Devils still have some disjointed sets and scorers are still struggling to play with Tatum at times but there were some promising signs. Giles (eight points, seven rebounds) continues to improve his natural timing and he knocked down a face-up jumper from 17 feet with ease that could help keep defenders honest on him.

There was some good but there was also some bad. Bolden regressed to being a non-factor once again and Allen struggled to find a consistent scoring touch with a 4-for-13 performance.

We still have yet to see the (mostly) full strength Blue Devils that make us believe they are a national title contender. It’ll be interesting to see which lineup ultimately plays the best for Duke but they’re struggling to figure out a consistent rotation.

3. Can N.C. State sustain this kind of effort on a nightly basis?

Monday night was N.C. State’s first road win of the season. So for as big as this win is, the Wolfpack still have a long way to go to becoming a consistent factor in a ridiculously deep ACC. Smith is going to get tested quite a bit by Louisville’s length and athleticism on Sunday and playing in front of that Cardinal crowd is one of the hardest things to do in college basketball.

It doesn’t get any easier for N.C. State and they can’t have a major letdown after the high of a road win like this. That losing stretch of four out of five games included some really bad losses. Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest are the kind of losses that tournament teams can’t sustain on a regular basis so the Wolfpack have to take care of  business against teams like that for the rest of the season.

Success on the road will also help N.C. State’s tournament cause. This Duke win is nice but now the Wolfpack get two more cracks at top-15 teams away from home with Louisville and Florida State in the next two weeks. If N.C. State can somehow split those road games and stay strong at home they’ll be in good shape the rest of the way.

PHOTO: Nevada wearing pink jerseys to honor Coaches vs. Cancer this week

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Nevada announced that they’ll be wearing special pink uniforms for the next two games to promote cancer awareness.

The Wolf Pack will wear the jerseys on Wednesday (Jan. 25) on the road against Boise State and at home on Saturday (Jan. 28) against New Mexico.

“We are extremely excited and honored to release our new Pink “Cancer-Awareness” Jerseys. It was apparent very early in our time here, that many members of our Nevada Wolf Pack Basketball Program and in our Pack community have been affected or are currently being affected by cancer,” Nevada head coach Eric Musselman said in the release. “We could not be more proud to help support the cause and unite to fight this horrible and devastating disease.”