Not all Final Fours are created equally.
Scour NCAA tournament history, and it’s difficult to find a collection of Final Four teams more surprising than the ones who met in 2011 at Houston’s Reliant Stadium.
At various points in the regular season, three of the teams appeared unlikely to make the field while the other, Kentucky, was considered an underachiever until a late season surge. Winning their respective conference tournaments saved Butler and Connecticut, while VCU was a controversial at-large selection, one of the last teams in the field, and sent to the First Four in Dayton to earn a line in the bracket of 64.
To further put its randomness in perspective, 139,051 people entered the NCAA.com Bracket Challenge game in 2011 and none correctly forecast the Final Four. Granted, it’s a difficult proposition in the most predictable year. On average, only 0.58 percent of the brackets have nailed the Final Four over the last five years - with a high of 2.25 percent last year.
So, who were these teams and how did they get there?
Butler - No. 8 seed in the Southeast Regional
The year before, the Bulldogs came within inches of a national title as Gordon Hayward’s desperation halfcourt heave rattled around the rim at the buzzer, allowing Duke to escape.
Hayward departed for the NBA after the season, and when Butler lost three in a row in early January, it appeared destined to be remembered as a one-hit wonder. But the Bulldogs rebounded late to earn a share of the Horizon League regular season title and claimed the conference tournament to earn the automatic bid. They entered the tournament on a nine-game winning streak, and thanks to Matt Howard’s tip-in at the buzzer pulled out an opening round win over Old Dominion. It was the first of several close calls.
The road: def. No. 9 ODU 60-58, def. No. 1 Pitt 71-70, def. No. 4 Wisconsin 61-54, def. No. 2 Florida 74-71
Connecticut - No. 3 seed in the West Regional
After a 10-0 start, the Huskies sputtered to a 11-9 mark in the next 20 games, finished ninth in the Big East and entered the conference tournament having lost four of five.
Then, the Kemba Walker Show began.
The flashy, fearless point guard erupted, electrifying the Madison Square Garden crowd by scoring 130 points in leading the Huskies to five wins in five days. The Huskies became the first team to accomplish that feat, although breaking new ground was familiar for a unit picked 10th in the Big East preseason poll.
A path to Houston opened wide when Arizona stomped defending champion and No. 1 seed Duke in the Sweet 16, as Walker continued terrorizing opponents, lighting up defensive minded foes Cincinnati for 33 points and San Diego State for 36.
The road: def. No. 14 Bucknell 81-52, No. 6 Cincinnati 69-58, No. 2 San Diego St. 74-67, No. 5 Arizona 65-63.
Kentucky - No. 4 East
The Wildcats reloaded with another top-flight recruiting class for 2010-11 after losing Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and John Wall to the 2010 NBA Draft.
Their replacements struggled early to find footing and despite closing the regular season with three consecutive wins, managed just a 20-9 record and second place SEC finish.
Still, the Wildcats had flashed their potential in defeating regular season champ Florida. They hammered the Gators again in the SEC final to enter the tournament riding a wave of momentum.
Facing a demanding draw, the Wildcats relied on stifling defense and timely shooting to advance to the Final Four for the 14th time in school history - but first since 1998.
The road: def. No. 13 Princeton 59-57, def. No. 5 West Virginia 71-63, def No. 1 Ohio State 62-60, def. No. 2 North Carolina 76-69.
VCU - No. 11 seed in the Southwest
Certain TV talking heads were irate when VCU, the fourth place team from the Colonial Athletic Association, received what was for all intents and purposes the final at-large entry to the 68-team field. While the CAA was a three-bid league for the first time in history, the Rams finished the season on a sour note, dropping four of five to close the regular season. When they fell to Old Dominion in the conference title game, their NCAA tournament dreams appeared to fade as well.
Not only did the Rams prove they belonged, they made history. They shored up a shaky defense and turned white-hot beyond the arc to become the only team to ever advance from the First Four to the Final Four. It was a magical run during which their coach became a national treasure known simply by his first name: Shaka.
The road: def. No. 11 Southern Cal 59-46, def. No. 6 Georgetown 74-56, No. 3 Purdue 94-76, def. No. 10 Florida State 72-71, def. No. 1 Kansas 71-61.
As an aside, prior to tipoff of the regional final game against Kansas, the Rams’ feisty senior point guard Joey Rodriguez joined Kansas captains Marcus and Markieff Morris at center court to meet with officials. One of the Morrises told him: “The run ends here.”
“We’ll see,” Rodriguez replied.
The Final Four
The mid-majors, Butler and VCU met in the first national semifinal. The perennial powerhouses, Kentucky and UConn met in the nightcap.
What they said before the games in Houston:
Shaka Smart, VCU coach: “In terms of our energy and enthusiasm as a team, I don't think there's any other way to play, I don't think there's any other way to coach. We're in the Final Four. What more can you say? It's a phenomenal opportunity for us. Opportunities multiply as they're seized. We want to seize them with all the energy we have.”
Brad Stevens, Butler coach: “Larry Sanders from VCU and Gordon Hayward from Butler both left early and we're sitting here. I think that's a remarkable story that I haven't read or nobody's talked about, that you lose guys to the first round to the NBA draft at non-BCS schools and you're both in the Final Four.”
John Calipari, Kentucky coach: “Well, there's two things that happened with this team. The veteran players, the guys that were on the team a year ago began to step up and take more responsibility for what was going on. The younger guys took a little step back, not much, but a little step back so they could step forward.
But the biggest thing is they started believing in each other. I kept telling them all along, I like this team, I believe in you guys, here's why, but you're going to have to battle and perform, you're going to have to play together down the stretch.
I kept telling them as the challenge escalates, the need for "team" elevates, and you have to be a team. They're starting to do that, or have started to do it and have been doing it for a few weeks.”
Kemba Walker, UConn guard: “Fatigue at this point is not a factor. We're not worried about that. We got a lot of rest. We got a chance to have a day off before games. This time we had a week off. So whenever the game comes, we'll be ready.
We understand that it's one game and, you know, you're done. We don't want our season to end short. We want to finish it off the right way.”
In the first national semifinal game, Butler was the aggressor throughout, held VCU to 39 percent shooting and dominated the rebounding totals to win 70-62 and become the lowest seeded team to play for the championship since No. 8 Villanova won the 1985 title.
"Of course it's not a once in a lifetime run. We're going to try to do this every year,” said Smart, now in his first year as coach at Texas. “It's not easy, there's no question about it. ... If we're capable of coming together as a group and playing aggressive, confident, loose basketball, and we have the right guys out there, it's certainly possible."
What Butler accomplished is still one of the most remarkable feats in the history of the NCAA tournament. A team from the Horizon League reached the final Monday two years in a row.
But Smart wasn’t surprised.
“Their program's rock solid. They've got a great coach. They've got a great system. They have players that every time they take the floor do so with a clear head. And when you have a clear head for winning, you have a great opportunity to win.”
“(Walker’s) just a special player,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. “I know talking to so many coaches, because our convention is here, it isn't just the jump shot or the drive, it's all the intangibles, the joy of playing basketball, that he brings to the game that separates him, in my opinion, from everybody else, plus seven freshmen, two sophomores, nine of our team. He's the guy they all follow.”
Both teams marched to Monday night with upsets, electric finishes and amazing performances. But, their championship game was anything but a work of art.
UConn held Butler to a championship-game low of 41 points and cruised to a 12-point victory, giving coach Jim Calhoun his third national championship. The Bulldogs made only three 2-point field goals. Walker, of course, was the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player despite shooting 5-of-19 and missing all four 3-point attempts.
Still, it capped an amazing 11-wins-in-27-days stretch for the Huskies, burying any recollection of a .500 mark in the Big East regular season.
"It says that we have a great coach and a great leader in Kemba Walker,” UConn forward Alex Oriakhi said. “When we lost four out of five, Coach just told us, 'I'm not going to quit on you guys.' He believed in us throughout the whole, from the beginning, and I think it was Coach Calhoun -- a great motivator and a great coach.”
Calhoun: "Butler gave us everything that we could handle. It was as tough, a physical game. We were up 10 points and it still seemed we were up one. Brad has done an incredible job. Their kids compete. They run their offense full speed.”
Butler coach Stevens lamented his team’s 12-of-64 shooting effort, discussed how difficult it was to watch his players struggle on the game’s largest stage. Stevens, now in his second season as coach of the Boston Celtics, then offered this perspective on the program’s two-year run.
"What they've done is remarkable and can't be overstated. You know, our seniors, what they've given to Butler, what they've given to our basketball program, the example they've set. You know, when you see the freshmen in there bawling their eyes out because they know they're not going to get to play with Matt Howard again, or Zach Hahn, Alex Anglin, Grant Leiendecker, Shawn Vanzant, you know you have something pretty special. Seniors always get upset. When everybody's upset, that's a unique thing."