Surprises make for exciting tourney

Sports Network

, Last Updated: 3:49 PM ET

TORONTO -- Word of the tournament: Parity.

In a season that seemed to hold no single dominant squad, most had this year's Final Four looking rather top heavy - a big mistake.

For only the third time since the NCAA employed seeding, none of the four No. 1 teams qualified for the Final Four.

Adding to that, the last No. 1 that fell, Kansas, lost to No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth, who became only the third 11th seed to make it into the Final Four joining George Mason (2006) and LSU (1986).

It's even more miraculous considering the run VCU made to get this far.

Many questioned the Rams' inclusion as an at-large bid as the club had to play in the inaugural edition of the First Four, which determined the four clubs to be included in the final field of 64.

Not only did the Rams qualify, they ran over five teams that hailed from power conferences - USC (Pac-10), Georgetown (Big East), Purdue (Big 10), Florida State (ACC) and Kansas (Big 12).

Awaiting VCU in the Final Four is Butler who hails from the Horizon League. With these two mid-majors squaring off, for the second year in a row, there will be a school that represents all the non-power conferences in the championship game.

BUTLER'S BACK!

It was just one year ago that the Butler Bulldogs were mere inches away from forever being etched in NCAA Tournament history as Gordon Hayward's half-court heave versus Duke in the Championship Game, was just a tad too strong.

With Hayward leaving for the bright lights of the NBA, few gave the team any hope of being a major player in this year's tournament, let alone a Final Four participant.

Yet the small school of only 4,500 students persevered and defied all odds behind the coaching prowess of Brad Stevens and the grit of the battle-tested seniors.

Their experience was certainly needed in the Sweet 16 after squandering a large margin against Wisconsin in the last few minutes. They witnessed a double-digit lead dwindle down to single digits before time expired on the Badgers' hopes. The Elite Eight would prove no different, as the timely shooting of Shelvin Mack and determination of Matt Howard brought Butler back from an 11-point second-half deficit to force overtime, where the Bulldogs secured a berth in the next round.

The underdog moniker that has defined Butler for so many years should no longer hold any bearing as the program joined an elite group to reach the Final Four in consecutive seasons. Michigan State went to back-to-back Final Fours in 2009-10 and Florida in 2006-07. Meanwhile, the last mid-major school to make consecutive appearances was UNLV back in 1990-91.

Last season, making the championship game wasn't so farfetched as Butler entered the tourney on a 20-game winning streak and continued its strong play throughout March Madness. This year's rendition looked much more vulnerable as the team lost nine games during the season and three-straight to end the month of January, yet still managed to peak at the right time.

Being in the Final Four two straight seasons will nix any notion that the Bulldogs are an underdog, as they hope to end Cinderella's ball when they face VCU.

IN KEMBA WE TRUST

The Connecticut Huskies ran through the Big East Tournament like no team has ever done in any conference tourney to date - winning five games in five days to be crowned champs.

That miraculous run had observers handing junior guard Kemba Walker the Player of the Year Award, as his stellar play in the tournament carried the Huskies to the title. Those same observers felt the amount of energy the team expended in the conference tournament would hinder the chances of March Madness success.

What they forgot were the very same attributes that got UConn to that point would overcome any notion of fatigue...the determination of Walker.

The Bronx-native continued to dominate in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight as his 26.8 ppg tournament average would attest. Yet, it wasn't only his scoring that had the Huskies surging past San Diego State and Arizona.

Walker showed extreme poise in the other parts of his game as he sensed when to give the ball up at exactly the right moment, and deferred to freshman forward Jeremy Lamb to close out the game against the Wildcats. His 6.8 apg average in four NCAA tournament contests exemplifies the six-foot guard has the ability to distribute as well as fill up the basket.

Over the past 18 days the Huskies have collected nine straight victories in games with "win or go home" implications. With Walker at the helm, the Huskies may be in prime contention to continue that streak when it's all said and done.

KNIGHT AND DAY

After losing an entire starting lineup to the NBA, few believed Kentucky would be able to trump last season's Elite Eight exit.

However, the Wildcats knocked off North Carolina this past Saturday to get back to the Final Four for the first time in 13 years. The biggest difference - last year's team didn't have Brandon Knight.

Though the freshman guard pales in comparison to last season's superstar point guard, John Wall, the impact he's had during the tournament is undeniable.

It was Knight's three-point barrage that did in the Tar Heels, as he drained five triples en route to a game-high 22 points. But as seen in the first weekend, his standout performance came on the heels of an interesting outing to say the least.

Against Ohio State, Knight was a virtual non-factor, scoring seven points through the first 39 minutes of play, while shooting an abysmal 2-9 along the way. Yet it was his last bucket that will stand in infamy, as he rushed down the court and let a 15-footer fly with five seconds remaining, knocking it down to send the Buckeyes packing.

This came after an opening weekend that saw the freshman hit a game-winner and torch a strong defensive team in the Princeton Tigers.

Being held scoreless for 39 minutes against the Ivy League school, it was his lone basket that was the difference. The six-foot-three guard followed his poor shooting night with a 30-point spectacle against West Virginia.

It's frustrating to see one of the top-ranked freshman guards put in such inconsistent efforts, but the results speak for themselves, and head coach John Calipari is now awarded with his third trip to the Final Four.

What might be enticing to Wildcats fans is if this pattern continues, it'll be Knight putting in the final dagger to take Kentucky to the championship game - despite having an off-night.


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