Four teams, four Cinderella stories

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I don’t think it would be fair to call the 2011 NCAA tournament the greatest tournament of all-time. At least not yet.

The first half of the first day was outstanding. There were a couple of classics during the tournament’s round of 32. The Sweet 16 featured plenty of intrigue, and the Elite 8 was as good as any Elite 8 since 2005.

But does that make the best NCAA tournament of all-time?

Who knows. That answer is far too subjective — and far too reliant on where you happened to attend undergrad — to have a definitive answer. It also depends on your definition of great. There are plenty of fans out there that think that the 2008 Final Four, in which all four No. 1 seeds advanced for the first time, was the greatest Final Four of all time. There is an equally large faction that considers this year’s Final Four, in which we don’t have a No. 1 or No. 2 seed for the first time ever and have the highest total seeds in tournament history, to be the greatest ever.

Arguing greatness is, in the end, pointless. Everyone has a different definition and a precious few will be convinced to change their opinion.

But the one thing we can agree on is that this NCAA tournament may be the most unexpected and unconventional. I’d go as far as to say that each of the four teams in this NCAA tournament can be considered a cinderella of sorts.

None of the four teams headed to Houston were supposed to here.

East region champ: No. 4 Kentucky

This wasn’t supposed to be the year that Kentucky made the Final Four.

This was supposed to be their in-between season, with a loaded recruiting class coming to campus next year.

Kentucky sent five players to the first round of the NBA draft in 2010. Everyone knew John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins were going to be gone after one season. Big Blue Nation probably got two extra years out of Patrick Patterson, who could have been a lottery pick as a freshman. But two of those first rounders, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton, were surprise departures. Combine those losses with the decision by the NCAA to render Enes Kanter permanently ineligible, and this Kentucky team was left with just a six-man rotation.

Three of those players were highly touted freshmen. The other three? DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson. Liggins and Miller were top-50 recruits who had underperformed in their two seasons in Lexington. Harrellson was a JuCo transfer known more for being a fan favorite and the team’s resident jokester than an interior force.

And although Big Blue Nation probably would disagree with me, the Wildcats probably deserved their four seed. This is a group that underperformed throughout the regular season, struggling away from Rupp Arena and finishing at 10-6 in a weak SEC.

But something happened in March.

Something clicked.

Harrellson has become a monster in the paint, using every bit of skill in his 6-foot-11, 250-pound frame to become a blue-collar workhorse. Liggins has developed into a defensive stopper that, at 6-6, is to the Wildcats what Chris Kramer was to Purdue and David Lighty was to Ohio State. Miller has become a knock-down shooter with a knack for making a big play.

It feels weird touting Kentucky as an underdog, but that is what they were just three weeks ago. The NCAA tournament is all about matchups and who gels at the right time.

And this Kentucky team has gelled. The Wildcats are playing their best basketball of the season, they are getting significant contributions from everyone on the floor, and they are in the Final Four after beating both Ohio State and North Carolina despite not having gotten anything close to their best player’s (Terrence Jones) best basketball.

West region champ: No. 3 UConn

Back in May, when UConn received their Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, I questioned whether it would be the death penalty for UConn basketball.

And although it looks quite silly now, based on what has happened in the last 10 months — well, the last month — knowing what I know now, my opinion would not have changed.

That should tell you just how impressive this run has been for the Huskies.

UConn was picked 10th in the Big East in the preseason, and rightfully so. NCAA sanctions hung over the Huskies, with a head coach who appeared to be one step from a convalescent home, and with a young and unproven roster surrounding a 6-foot-nothing point guard who still had a ways to go before his skill set caught up with his tools.

After a terrific non-conference portion of the schedule, which included a Maui Invitational title and a win at Texas, the Huskies came back to earth in Big East play. They went 4-9 against the 11 Big East teams that made the NCAA tournament, lost four of their last five games in the regular season, and finished ninth in the Big East and playing on the Big East tournament’s first day.

That’s when this magical run started.

UConn won five games in five days in New York City, winning the tournament title and earning that three seed. And after winning four games over the past two weekends, the Huskies are headed to Houston for their second Final Four in three seasons.

Southeast region champ: No. 8 Butler

It might be unfair to call a team making its second straight Final Four a Cinderella, but everything about this Butler team screams Cinderella.

The Bulldogs finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Horizon League at 13-5. To do so, they had to bounce back from a stretch of four losses in five games, capped when Butler fell to Youngstown State, a Horizon bottom-feeder.

Butler came into the NCAA tournament on a roll, winning its last nine games (two of which came in the Horizon tournament), earning an eight seed and a date with Old Dominion in the first round. That roll didn’t slow in the dance, as the Bulldogs won four more games to get to the Final Four.

Those wins, mind you, weren’t blowouts.

Like any Cinderella, Butler has had to scrap and claw to get where it is, taking advantage of some lucky bounces along the way. In the Bulldogs’ first-round game, Matt Howard happened to have a loose ball land in his hands before scoring the buzzer-beating layup in the first-round win over Old Dominion. The Bulldogs nearly blew a second-round game against Pitt on a silly foul by Shelvin Mack, but thanks to a missed free throw from Gilbert Brown and an even sillier foul by Nasir Robinson, Butler once again advanced.

The Bulldogs managed to avoid blowing a 20-point lead to Wisconsin before taking on Florida in the Elite 8. More magic was in store against the Gators. Seldom-used freshman Chrishawn Hopkins made two plays in the second half to help erase an 11-point deficit and swing the tide of momentum in the Bulldogs’ favor before some questionable late-game shot selection from Florida put Butler in another Final Four.

In some ways, Butler’s run to the Final Four this season is much more of a Cinderella story than last year’s. The Bulldogs had some expectation last season. They were a preseason pick to make the Final Four. They struggled through non-conference play, which put a damper on their seeding and their status nationally, but that was still a team with a lottery pick that defended as well as anyone in the country.

This year? They have no such lottery pick, and probably don’t have an NBA player on the roster. They don’t play an elite level of defense. Yet, here they are.

Back in the Final Four.

Southwest region champ: No. 11 VCU

The Rams might be the biggest Cinderella of all time.

Very few people thought the Rams had a shot at making the NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday. Not after they lost their last four games in Colonial play. Shaka Smart was so convinced that his team wasn’t going to get a bid that he didn’t even get them together for the selection show. Brad Burgess went to Five Guys. Ed Nixon watched cartoons. Brandon Rozell did his homework. Joey Rodriguez was the only player who watched.

And he was rewarded.

VCU got in, just barely. It had to take part in the first ever at-large play-in game. The Rams locked up USC defensively, advancing to face Georgetown in the round of 64. They ran the Hoyas and then Purdue off the court with a barrage of three-pointers, following that up with a nail-biting, overtime win against Florida State.

Up next was powerhouse Kansas, who was staggered by a series of haymakers thrown by the suddenly confident Rams early in the game. VCU answered a 6-0 start by the Jayhawks with a 19-4 run that was pushed to a 39-15 surge. Kansas was never able to take the lead back, and VCU was headed to the Final Four.

What makes the Rams’ run so incredible is that they are playing, without a doubt, their best basketball of the season.

The Rams are undersized, but they are loaded with shooters and difficult matchups for teams with more traditional lineups. They also like to press and get their opponents out of an offensive rhythm. And that is precisely what they have done in their first five games of this tournament. For a team that barely cracked the top third in defensive efficiency in the regular season, they have been one of the best defensive teams in this tournament. Even their shooting from beyond the arc is at a level that the Rams have not experienced this season. VCU never hit more than 11 threes in a game in the regular season. They have made 12 in a game three times in five NCAA tournament games.

VCU has already set a record of sorts.

After Saturday’s national semifinal against Butler, VCU will become the first team to ever play in six NCAA tournament games without having played in the national championship game.

It doesn’t get more Cinderella than that.

Even this season.

Duke edges North Carolina 63-57 behind Roach, Lively

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
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DURHAM, N.C. — Jeremy Roach scored 20 points, Dereck Lively II had career highs of eight blocks and 14 rebounds and Duke defeated North Carolina 63-57 on Saturday night.

Kyle Filipowski added 14 points and Tyrese Proctor 11 for the Blue Devils (17-6, 8-4 ACC), who won their third straight and beat the Tar Heels (15-8, 7-5) for the first time in three meetings, including in last year’s Final Four in the NCAA Tournament.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot had 14 points and 10 rebounds for his 63rd career double-double, extending his own program record, Leaky Black had 13 points and 10 rebounds, Caleb Love added 12 points and RJ Davis 11.

Roach scored eight of Duke’s final 10 points, including the last four after Lively’s tiebreaking dunk with 1:35 to go. North Carolina missed its last five shots, including a trio of 3-point tries in the final minute.

The Blue Devils’ six-point winning margin matched their largest lead.

Neither team reached 40% shooting but Duke outscored North Carolina 20-2 off fast breaks and was 11 of 15 at the free-throw line to only 2 of 3 for the Tar Heels.

The stat sheet was fairly even at halftime when Duke led 33-32 except for one telling stat, a 16-0 advantage for the Blue Devils on fast-break points as they scored repeatedly off transition.

A 14-5 run erased a seven-point North Carolina lead — the Tar Heels’ largest — and put Duke in front 26-24 with just under four minutes left in the half. A Proctor 3-pointer broke the fourth tie before Bacot cut it to the one-point margin at the break. Bacot had 12 points in the first half. Roach had 10.

The game matched two men who played in this rivalry and are now leading the programs they played for: first-year Duke coach Jon Scheyer and Hubert Davis, in his second year for North Carolina.

The teams will meet again in their regular-season finale at Chapel Hill on March 4. Duke plays at No. 23 Miami on Monday. North Carolina is at Wake Forest on Tuesday.

No. 13 Iowa State rolls past eighth-ranked Kansas 68-53

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
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AMES, Iowa – Jaren Holmes scored all 15 of his points in the second half as No. 13 Iowa State rolled past No. 8 Kansas 68-53 on Saturday.

Osun Osunniyi added 13 for the Cyclones (16-6, 7-3 Big 12), who stayed within at least a game of front-running Texas in the conference standings. Tamin Lipsey added eight rebounds and 10 assists.

“Today, we came out and played desperate,” Holmes said.

Jalen Wilson led the Jayhawks (18-5, 6-4) with 26 points for his sixth straight game with at least 20. No other Kansas player had more than 8 points.

“It’s not a formula for success for us,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “We need balance from our starting five. If one guy feels like he’s got to go do it all on his own, it crashes the offense.”

The Cyclones led for all but 1:14 of the game, building a 34-16 scoring edge in the paint. Kansas struggled early, making just two of their first 10 shots and committing 11 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

Iowa State shot 46% for the game.

“From the beginning, we gave them some easy buckets,” Wilson said. “That’s something we’ve struggled with (defensively) … the easiest way to get comfortable is easy buckets, layups, stuff like that.”

Iowa State was up 33-21 at the break.

Holmes missed all four shots in the first half, but after getting sick at halftime, he helped the Cyclones stretched the lead to 42-31 early in the second half with a 3-pointer and layup.

“I felt a little nauseous the whole day,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with some sickness over the past week and a half.”

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The Jayhawks dropped to 3-4 during a stretch in which six of its seven opponents were ranked. The lone unranked foe was Kentucky. … Kansas committed a season-high 20 turnovers Saturday. … The loss to Iowa State was Self’s first in five meetings with second-year Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger.

Iowa State: Improved to 12-0 at home this season and 5-0 in the Big 12. It was also the Cyclones’ fifth win over a top-10 opponent in the past two seasons.

UP NEXT

Kansas: Hosts No. 10 Texas on Monday.

Iowa State: Travels to West Virginia on Wednesday.

Bishop helps No. 10 Texas rally past No. 7 K-State, 69-66

Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports
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MANHATTAN, Kan. – Christian Bishop was as frustrated as anyone in a Texas jersey in the first half Saturday. He’d been held without a point by Kansas State and, not surprisingly, the No. 10 Longhorns were facing a double-digit deficit on the road.

Maybe that’s why he punctuated every bucket in the second half with a fist pump.

Bishop poured in 14 points after the break to lead the Longhorns’ comeback, including the go-ahead lay-in with 37 seconds to go, and the new Big 12 leaders held on for a 69-66 victory over the No. 7 Wildcats on Saturday.

“Christian’s been working really hard over the last couple of games to get him back to the level he was playing four or five games ago,” interim Texas coach Rodney Terry said. “He really came out and rebounded and gave our team an incredible lift the way he played the second half.”

Red-hot guard Sir’Jabari Rice also had 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Longhorns, and it was his two free throws with nine seconds left that forced the Wildcats into needing a 3-pointer to send the game to overtime.

After a quick timeout, the Wildcats’ Ismael Massoud got an open look from the wing but came up well short of the basket, allowing the Longhorns to hold on for their fifth win over a Top 25 team this season.

Tyrese Hunter and Marcus Carr added 10 points apiece for Texas (19-4, 8-2), which took over sole possession of first place in the rough-and-tumble Big 12 by avenging its overtime loss to the Wildcats (18-5, 6-4) early last month.

“Our league, we don’t have any bad teams,” Terry said. “To come in on a home court against a top-10 team and have this kind of performance, I’ll stack it up with one of the best wins I’ve been part of in 30 years of coaching.”

Keyontae Johnson struggled through foul trouble but still had 16 points to lead the Wildcats, who have lost back-to-back games for the first time this season. Desi Sills scored 11 points and Markquis Nowell had 10, but he also had six turnovers, including one with less than a minute to go and Kansas State down by one.

“I don’t want to wash this one. I want to live with this one for 36 hours,” Wildcats coach Jerome Tang said. “Everybody in our arena did our job except the coaches and players on the floor.”

Kansas State and Texas played one of the most entertaining games of the season in Austin, when they went bucket-for-bucket through regulation and into overtime. The Wildcats eventually escaped with a 116-103 victory.

Early on Saturday, Texas looked as if it would struggle to score half as much.

With the Wildcats clamping down on the perimeter, the Longhorns kept throwing the ball away, and at one point had seven turnovers against just five made shots. They also went a stretch of more than 7 minutes with just one field goal.

Kansas State took advantage of their offensive malaise.

Despite the sure-handed Nowell’s turnover trouble, and leading scorer Johnson picking up his third foul with 5 1/2 minutes left in the half, the Wildcats steadily built a lead. It reached as many as 14 before Texas made three free throws in the final second to get within 36-25 heading to the locker room.

It was the spark the Longhorns needed: They made their first six shots of the second half, and their run spanning the break eventually reached 17-4 while getting them within 40-39 with 15 minutes left in the game.

“There were points in the second half we did get rushed,” Nowell said, “and it led to turnovers and fast-break points.”

Rice’s 3-pointer a few minutes later gave Texas its first lead since the opening minutes. And when the Wildcats went on a nearly 5-minute scoring drought, Bishop began to assert control, the Creighton transfer scoring 11 points over a 6-minute stretch and punctuating each of them with a roar and a fist pump.

Just like their first meeting Jan. 3, though, the rematch Saturday was destined to go down to the wire.

“There’s no blowouts in our league,” Tang said.

BIG PICTURE

Texas could do nothing right in the first half and nothing wrong in the second, shooting 57% from the floor over the final 20 minutes. Most of the success came in the paint; the Longhorns were just 4 of 16 from the 3-point arc.

Kansas State couldn’t overcome 19 turnovers, including six by Nowell, who had 36 points, nine assists and eight rebounds when the teams met in Austin. He had just six rebounds and three assists on Saturday.

UP NEXT

Texas heads down Interstate 70 to face eighth-ranked Kansas on Monday night.

Kansas State wraps its homestand against No. 15 TCU on Tuesday night.

James leads No. 2 Tennessee over No. 25 Auburn, 46-43

Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Josiah-Jordan James scored 15 points and 14 rebounds to lead No. 2 Tennessee to a 46-43 victory over No. 25 Auburn on Saturday in a game in which every point was difficult and nothing flowed.

“Both teams played as hard as they could,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes. “Every possession was a grind.”

The Volunteers (19-4, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) shot just 27% from the field and 9.5% from the 3-point line. They were recovering from a Wednesday loss to Florida in which they shot 28%.

Tennessee had a 47-42 edge on the boards and 15-8 on the offensive glass.

“A game like this shows a lot of character,” said James. “I knew coming in (rebounding) was what I’d be called to do. I had to use the body God’s given me.”

“Both teams did a fantastic job,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. “To hold Tennessee to 27% … It doesn’t get any better than that.”

“I don’t think there’s a more physical league in the country,” said Barnes.

The Tigers (17-6, 7-3) were led by Johni Broome with 11 points and nine rebounds and K.D. Johnson off the bench with 10 points. Auburn managed only 24% from the field and 11% from the 3-point line.

Jaylin Williams made two free throws with 2:47 to play cut Tennessee’s lead to 40-38. Santiago Vescovi hit his first 3-pointer of the game and got a four-point play out of it for a 44-38 lead. A 3-pointer by Wendell Green Jr. cut the advantage to 44-41 with 30 seconds left.

A turnover on the inbounds play gave Auburn the ball with 23 seconds to play. Broome got a tip-in to make it a one-point game, and Zakai Zeigler made two free throws.

Green’s last-second 3-point to tie clanked out.

“At the end, Wendell Green got the shot off and got fouled,” said Pearl. “Nothing got called.”

Auburn scored eight straight points to start the game. Tennessee followed with a six-point run and an eight-point spurt early in the second half. Those were the longest runs of the game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Tennessee was in the No. 2 spot in the poll for two days before falling at Florida. Under Barnes, the Vols now have 25 wins over teams ranked in the Top 25. . Auburn had been clinging to the elite at No. 25 this week. The Tigers have been ranked as high as No. 11, coming in the fifth week of the season.

STAT SNACKS

Since statistics started being kept in 1999-2000, Tennessee is on pace to be the all-time leader in field-goal percentage defense (.348; Stanford, 1999-2000, is second .352) and 3-point defense (.225; Norfolk State, 2004-05, is second .253). . Through 22 games, the similarities between last year’s Vols point guard Kennedy Chandler (now with the Memphis Grizzlies) and this year’s Ziegler are striking (points per game: Chandler 13.5, Ziegler 11.4; rebounds: 3.0, 3.0; assists: 4.95, 5.05).

UP NEXT

Auburn: The Tigers will host Texas A&M on Tuesday night.

Tennessee: The Vols will tackle in-state rival Vanderbilt in Nashville on Wednesday.

Pedulla’s 22 points lift Virginia Tech past No. 6 Virginia

Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports
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BLACKSBURG, Va. – Sean Pedulla scored 22 points and Virginia Tech beat No. 6 Virginia 74-68 on Saturday, snapping the Cavaliers’ seven-game winning streak.

Pedulla made 6 of 13 from the floor as the Hokies (14-10, 4-8 Atlantic Coast Conference) posted their biggest win of the season. He added 8 of 9 from the free-throw line. Justin Mutts added 17 points.

Virginia Tech never trailed and shot 50% from the floor for the fourth straight game.

“There was no pouting (after the Miami loss). Just back to practice the next day,” Virginia Tech coach Mike Young said of his team, which lost 92-83 to No. 23 Miami on Tuesday. “Yeah, we’ve got Virginia coming in. Yes, in-state and all of that stuff. We’ve got another opportunity to play another really good opponent. We’ve got a chance to play Virginia Tech basketball and fight and compete and adhere to the things that are important to us – and we did that by and large on both ends of the floor.”

Jayden Gardner’s 20 points led Virginia (17-4, 9-3), which saw its usually stingy defense struggle. Kihei Clark finished with 17 points for the Cavaliers, while Reece Beekman had 15. Armaan Franklin, who had scored in double figures in 10 straight games, had six.

The Cavaliers tied the game at 38 on Gardner’s basket with 15:09 remaining, but the Hokies outscored Virginia 17-7 over the next seven minutes and never looked back.

Mutts hit 7 of 11 from the floor and added eight assists and four rebounds. Grant Basile had 14 points and Hunter Cattoor scored all 10 of his points in the second half for the Hokies.

“The heart was there, but to win in this setting against a team that’s playing good basketball, and Tech is, and they’ve got the players, you’ve got to be hard and smart,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “You can’t just be all hard. We were (hard and smart) for stretches, and they made us make some adjustments that helped a little bit, but they made the big shots.”

TIP-INS

Virginia: The Cavaliers suffered a rare poor outing on the defensive end, and it cost them. They led the ACC in scoring defense (60.2 ppg) going in, but allowed the Hokies to score 74 points and shoot 50.9% (27 of 53) from the floor. The Hokies became just the third team this season to shoot better than 50% against Virginia and scored 40 points in the paint.

“They run a lot of action, whether it’s dribble handoffs, fakes, they keep you on your toes, and it takes an incredible, and I think disciplined (effort) to keep them in front and keep them out of the paint,” Bennett said.

Virginia Tech: After losing eight of their previous 10 games, the Hokies needed a big win to help their thin NCAA Tournament resume. Registering 19 assists and turning the ball over just eight times were keys.

“Obviously, we keep up with stuff throughout the year, like `Oh, this would be a huge win on our resume,”‘ Pedulla said. “We do think about (the NCAA Tournament), and we obviously want to get there again. We know our team’s capable of it. We’re focused on it and we’re just trying to stack those wins on top of each other. I think this win definitely helps us.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Cavaliers were one-point underdogs going into the game, so they shouldn’t drop more than a few spots in Monday’s poll.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Hosts N.C. State on Tuesday.

Virginia Tech: Takes on Boston College in Blacksburg on Wednesday.