- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's time. In just five days, the entire college basketball world will descend on the sleepy burg of Houston -- believe it or not, the fourth-largest city in the United States -- for the Final Four. We'll watch as Kentucky, Connecticut, Butler (wait, huh?) and VCU (wait, really?) duke it out for the 2011 national title. Just joining us? Skipped the early parts of the tournament? No big deal. Here's a handy primer packed with obvious -- and not so obvious -- things to know about this year's college hoops carnival.
I. The Storylines
1. VC-Who? Exactly three weeks ago, the Virginia Commonwealth Rams had the distinction of being one of two teams -- UAB was the other -- that surprised most, if not all, bubble-watchers and bracketologists with its inclusion in the NCAA tournament. UAB was the focus of most of the bubble-related surprise, but VCU got its fair share of confused camera-bound glances, too. And with good reason. The Rams finished fourth -- yes, fourth, behind George Mason, Old Dominion and Hofstra -- in the Colonial Athletic Association this year. They lost four out of their last five regular-season games. On Feb. 2, VCU lost at Northeastern. On Selection Sunday, they were 23-11 and slated to play USC in the NCAA's first-ever First Four event in Dayton, Ohio, which is either a clever new marketing effort, a glorified play-in game or both.
Five games later, VCU is in the Final Four.
To say their run is unlikely is like saying life on Earth is "pretty neat." The Rams were one of the longest shots to make the Final Four ever. If you thought George Mason's 2006 run as a CAA No. 11 seed was once in a lifetime, you were wrong. It wasn't even once in a decade. And, of course, there's that, thanks to the First Four, VCU had to win an extra game to get to Houston. And that the Rams have won their five games -- over a high-major murderer's row of USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas -- by an average margin of 12 points.
Words can barely describe how crazy, how unlikely, how bafflingly awesome this VCU run really was. If you're still having a hard time wrapping your head around it, well, you're not the only one.
2. And, oh yeah, let's not forget about Butler. Thanks to VCU, it will be easy to overlook just how unlikely Butler's run to the Final Four has been this season. But we shouldn't. A day after VCU lost to Northeastern, Butler lost to last-place Youngstown State. The Bulldogs were 14-9. They weren't expected to return to the NCAA tournament, in which they were inches from a storybook ending to arguably the best mid-major tournament run in the history of the sport last season. Instead, after a series of just-this-close finishes -- buzzer-beaters, last-second fouls, overtimes and everything in between -- Butler, a small academically inclined school of 4,200 students from a small, resource-bereft Midwestern conference, with a team that lost its best player to the NBA draft lottery in June, finds itself in the Final Four for the second year in a row. That it isn't the craziest thing to happen in 2011 only speaks to the insanity of VCU's run. Because this is pretty insane, too.
3. John Calipari's best job ever? In 2010, the Kentucky Wildcats had the No. 1 and No. 4 overall NBA draft picks in their lineup and three more players selected in the first round of the NBA draft. In 2012, arguably the best recruiting class in school history will arrive in Lexington, Ky. But guess what: This year's team -- a good one, but far from a great one, or at least that's what we thought -- is the one Calipari managed to take to the Final Four. Frankly, he deserves much of the credit. His game plans versus No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 North Carolina were masterful, and his team executed them flawlessly on both ends of the floor. Brandon Knight hit two buzzer-beaters en route to the Final Four, including Friday's last-second shot over OSU, and forward Josh Harrellson has played the best basketball of his life. (Remember when the loss of Enes Kanter was supposed to doom this team's season?) This isn't Calipari's most talented team, but thanks to some masterful coaching, it might just end up as his most successful.
4. Jim Calhoun's best job ever? Please keep in mind: Even after we knew Kemba Walker was one of the game's few bona fide stars this season -- after he single-handedly willed Connecticut to a surprising tournament win at the Maui Invitational in November -- no one thought much of Connecticut's team. Walker would cool off. The Huskies' supporting cast wouldn't step up. Calhoun might rebound from an NCAA investigation that tarnished his legacy with a nice season, sure, and maybe the Huskies would overachieve their marginal preseason expectations, but surely this wasn't a classic UConn team, right? Wrong. Walker has spent the past two months playing every bit as well as in November, forward Alex Oriakhi has morphed into a rebound machine and lanky freshman forward Jeremy Lamb has flashed his immense talent much sooner than anyone thought possible. As a result, Calhoun's well-coached, focused team is in the Final Four, and while the Huskies' talent level might not match up with any of Calhoun's classic squads, this year's team now has the chance to cement its own unlikely legend.
5. David versus Goliath, Part Two. Whatever happens Saturday, we're destined to repeat last year's national championship dynamic. One team will be a small mid-major with a limited athletics budget on the tail end of a Cinderella run. The other will be an elite blue-blood program with blue-chip talent and decades of aristocratic hoops success behind it. Whatever happens Sunday, we'll also have a distinct dynamic among the two head coaches. One side will have the big-name, wealthy coach. The other will have a young (Brad Stevens is 34; Shaka Smart is 33) pup. One side will have the cloud of NCAA impropriety attached. (Calhoun was suspended for the first three games of next year's Big East season, thanks to the NCAA's findings against him earlier this year; Calipari, while never directly implicated at UMass or Memphis, has previously coached at two programs that went on to have seasons vacated.) The other, well, won't. The contrast in styles between these four teams, programs and coaches couldn't be wider.
In other words, for the second straight season, we get Hickory High versus South Bend Central. Can Hickory win the rematch?
II. The Stars
6. Connecticut's Kemba Walker. Were it not for Jimmer Fredette's season-long scoring heroics, Walker would have been the face of this season. In many ways, he still is. Walker broke out in Maui, buoyed UConn while its supporting cast grew into their roles; regained his swagger during a masterful run through the Big East tournament; and turned things up another notch in the Big Dance. The only way Walker's season could get better is a national title. Don't think he doesn't realize as much.
7. Kentucky's Brandon Knight. If there was one thing that gave fans pause about this year's Kentucky team -- other than the lack of Kanter, that is -- it was the team's season-long propensity for losing close games on the road. That is no longer a concern. Thanks to Knight's comprehensive play in the NCAA tournament, not to mention his buzzer-beaters over Princeton and No. 1 seed Ohio State, Knight has morphed into a last-second assassin and given Wildcats fans hope that their team has the upper hand in any pressure-packed, last-second situation. No player and no team in the NCAA tournament has been as clutch as Knight and his (yes, his) Kentucky Wildcats.
8. VCU's Joey Rodriguez. Pretty much everyone in VCU's lineup is playing the best basketball of his life. Bradford Burgess is the hottest player in the tournament. Brandon Rozzell might be the second-hottest. Jamie Skeen, a former Wake Forest transfer, is a nigh-unstoppable, inside-out threat. But Rodriguez is the true heart and soul of this team, not to mention the player who runs VCU's high-powered offensive attack with a speed and decisiveness that has allowed the Rams to hold off bigger and more talented teams (see: Kansas' second half Sunday) en route to this unlikeliest of Final Four appearances.
9. Butler's Matt Howard. Howard's clutch heroics in this tournament have been rivaled only by Knight's. The Butler forward's last-second layup in the first round got the Bulldogs past Old Dominion, and his rebound and calm last-second free throws at the end of the Pittsburgh game sealed the craziest win of the tournament in the round of 32. Howard is a thoughtful, unassuming guy with a penchant for quirk, and along with guard Shelvin Mack, he -- and his gross socks -- is a major reason these Bulldogs are back in the Final Four for the second straight season.
III. The Surroundings
10. Houston's Reliant Stadium. There is no better juxtaposition of the modern state of college basketball than this Final Four and this Final Four location. VCU and Butler are small mid-majors with minimal resources. VCU's Stuart C. Siegel Center seats 7,500; Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse accommodates 10,000. Reliant Stadium is a hulking, $352 million edifice built on the last decade's wave of NFL excess. When it was finished in 2002, it was billed as "the world's first domed stadium with the world's first retractable roof, air-conditioned, natural grass football field." The NCAA demands that its Final Four venues seat at least 70,000 fans, and Reliant is no different; the stadium officially seats 71,500 but packed in 74, 147 for the 2009 Houston Livestock Show.
If you want to be one of those 70,000-plus in the building for the Final Four, you're going to have to pony up the dough. According to StubHub, the nosebleeding-est of the nosebleed seats is currently selling for about $200, while anything that won't force you to watch much of the action on Reliant Stadium's giant video board is going to be much, much pricier. The big spenders in the audience will pay as much as $10,000 for lower-level tickets, and that doesn't even get us to the no-doubt-insane prices attached to luxury suites and skyboxes and the inevitable Saturday inflation caused by the hordes of Kentucky fans making a joyful, unexpected hoops pilgrimage in Houston.
Oh, and bring your summer clothes. It's supposed to be mid-80s and sunny all weekend long.